The continued economic recession offers stark choices. You can buy the mainstream ideological line that we’re in a time of economic scarcity and end up spinning your wheels fighting other struggling people over who will get this scrap of welfare at the expense of that crumb of education funding. Or, you can seize the opportunity presented by the recession to expose the rotten system in which the richest people continue to get richer at the same moment they ask ordinary people to do without.
Don’t be fooled by the TV talking heads: the economic stress we are living through is not about a lack of resources, it is about how those resources are distributed and how the process is controlled. There is a lot of talk about tightening belts at the same time that Wall Street had a great year during 2010 — the stock market was up 11 percent for the year and bankers received billions in bonuses. It is curious to hear frantic calls to cut government budgets at the same time as tax cuts are passed for the richest 1 percent — you wouldn’t want them to have to cut their yacht budget.
While recessions impose real pain, they are built into the fabric of the free market system — rather than being a failure of the system, they are a normal part of its operation. It is easy to get confused and distracted by complex discussions of the housing bubble and Wall Street gimmicks like mortgage derivatives and credit default swaps. These details obscure the easy lesson of the recent crash, which is that the economic system is operating on its own internal logic always concentrating wealth and power at the top and disconnected from the welfare of the vast majority of people and the earth.
How can we see through the distractions and false choices that supporters of the economic status quo have been pushing to grasp that the recession offers opportunities for people to organize for a better future. We don’t have to be depressed by the depression — we can resist austerity and struggle for a world organized to meet human needs, not serve corporate greed. Austerity was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2010 — it means a government policy of spending cuts and reduction of public services.
In Europe in particular, 2010 saw an eruption of popular protest against economic austerity with massive strikes, riots and protests in Greece, England, France, Spain, Italy, etc.
In the US, by contrast, the recession hasn’t (so far) trigged much popular revolt against the economic system and its injustices during recession times — a rejection of continued corporate control and domination by unaccountable Wall Street tycoons.
In the absence of organized opposition to the recession and economic injustice, many people stung by the recession have been attracted by the Tea Party movement — an exercise in confusion and distraction focused on government abstractions like “the founding fathers” and details about “the Constitution,” rather than economic issues. The Tea Party actually demands more economic hardship for the poorest people while it distracts attention from the failures of the capitalist economic system, and subtlely implies that immigrants and minorities are the real problem with its demands to “take American back.” From whom? Certainly not the Fortune 500 or the richest 1 percent who make their income from stock dividends, not working a job — the Tea Party never mentions them. The Tea Party demands small government, but ignores Big Business.
How can we make 2011 a year of resistance to austerity — not just in Europe, but in the US and around the globe? How about a general strike in Pittsburgh or a bread riot in Atlanta? When banks try to throw a family out in the street, an organized neighborhood can barricade the block. If folks in London can throw shit at Prince Charles’ limo like they did at a recent demonstration in London, maybe someone can TP Donald Trump’s mansion or something. Who the fuck in the USA is parallel to Prince Charles, anyway?
And how can we widen resistance from begging for government / economic crumbs to attacking the absurdity of an economic system which requires inequality and injustice as well as unlimited economic growth on a finite planet, which is threatening us all with ecological collapse?
Demanding “no cuts” to a particular government program or “no fee increases” for higher education misses the point by implying that if the capitalism system would just start working better again — growing and creating wealth to feed government bureaucracies — everything would be fine. Capitalism is cyclical — good times follow bad times just like bad times follow good times — but no matter which side of the business cycle you’re on, the system maintains economic inequality and concentrates power. Excessively modest / reformist goals piss away the opportunities presented by this moment. As some people try to defend aspects of the welfare state, don’t forget that the reason it was created in the first place was to avoid riots, strikes and social disruption so as to preserve the basic injustices of the system by making them a little less unpleasant.
The most dangerous aspects of capitalism are the ways it sucks meaning and self-determination from our day-to-day lives and the way its value-free efficiency carves up the planet. Environmental destruction — deforestation, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, etc. — actually fall during recessions when production falls. That tells you that moments when the capitalist system is “healthy” and profits are surging are precisely the most unhealthy moments for human beings and the natural world. A particularly cynical right-wing talking point is that the recession requires environmental rules to be rolled back because they are killing jobs.
When business is booming, our time for unpaid but meaningful activities like family, community, pleasure, expression, etc. gets gobbled up by the machine to be transformed into stuff and services. The economy wants to displace every parent and sell us childcare and a housecleaner, abolish every gardener and sell us produce and a garden service, ignore every artist and sell us entertainment on a computer chip.
We can demand a different way. A system that keeps you busy doing meaningless jobs you hate to more quickly undermine the planet’s ability to support life and make a tiny number of people rich and powerful so they are unaccountable to everyone else is a crazy system. It isn’t the type of system you want to see recover — it is the type of system you want to go out into the streets to overturn. Many millions of people who see through the confusion will be out on the streets in 2011. Will any of them be in the US? Will you be there? What can we do to be part of the future, and not the past?