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Congratulations, Mr. Bush: You Have Not Presided
Over the Final Collapse of Capitalism

by Paul Street
June 9, 2004

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The White House is crowing over recent labor market data showing that 947,000 jobs were added to the workforce over the last three months, “signaling” what the New York Times calls “an end to the long period of almost uninterrupted jobs losses under president Bush.” (“Healthy Job Growth of 248,000 Jobs Reported in May,” New York Times, June 5, 2004). “This good news on the jobs front,” the White House web site proclaims, “shows that the economy is strong and growing stronger, and that President Bush’s economic policies are working.”

No doubt the Bush cabal is thinking back to their recently departed icon Ronald Reagan, who also struggled with a recession and introduced massive tax cuts for the rich during his first term. Reagan rode an economic upswing to a second victory in 1984.

Well, among other things, the “good news” shows that the capitalist business cycle has yet to be abolished. George W. Bush should be congratulated, I suppose, for not presiding over the final downward spiral of capitalism.

As radical economic thinkers before and since Karl Marx have noted, the historical political-economic regime called capitalism is prone to periodic crises, downswings and upswings. There are numerous variants of left and Marxist crisis and business cycle theory (“wage-squeeze,” “under-consumption/over-production,” “excess capital,” and more) that I would not dare engage in this humble venue, but the essential point is that an economic system whose expansion depends on the investor class’s ability to maintain adequate rates of profit is and has always been subject to manic-depressive cycles of boom and bust. The function of the latter is to return the prices of capital and labor to the point that capitalists can resume accumulation with a reasonable expectation of profitable return.

In that regard, it is interesting to note, as does the liberal Economic Policy Institute (EPI), some significant labor market limits to the “good news.” “The industries that are expanding as a share of total employment,” EPI finds, “pay lower wages than those that account for a smaller share of the total.” The new job growth is focused especially in hotels, restaurants, and temp jobs. The low-paid nature of jobs that are most especially growing is combining with continued “slack” in the job market -- a result of the fact that many of the Clinton-Bush recession’s “discouraged workers” (people who had given up looking for work and thus fell out of official unemployment statistics) -- to prevent the employment expansion from creating (inflation-adjusted) wage-growth (Jared Bernstein, “Jobs Picture,” June 4, 2004) for America's grateful workers.

It’s always amusing to watch American policymakers, presidents especially, respond to Das Kapitalism’s moody, oscillating trend lines. When “the economy” (as they like to call it) is on the manic upswing, they talk like the system is run on the basis of state command: it’s all about their brilliant policies. When things swing down, as they ultimately do, “the economy” becomes this distant, practically naturalized entity that is beyond their sphere of influence: external “economic circumstances” force “difficult decisions” -- you know, like slashing programs for (the rising number of) poor to pay for plutocratic tax cuts -- for the heroic, embattled statesmen.

Beyond Marx’s point, there’s Chomsky’s position, also something you won’t be hearing at the liberal extreme represented by EPI and the Times. The real promise of “modern” civilization is democracy and equality, not growth per se.

Why do we give the old Soviet Union little praise for managing fairly impressive economic growth during the 1960s? Why do we feel distaste upon remembering that Adolf Hitler garnered significant popularity because of his success in overcoming the Great Depression and putting millions of Germans back to work? Why does the rapid growth of the Brazilian “economic miracle” (1960s-1980s) inspire little admiration (well, outside of totalitarian/neoliberal-terrorist venues like the University of Chicago’s department of economics)?

Because the economic growth that took place in these times and places occurred under the rule of profoundly authoritarian, hierarchical regimes and in a context of profound inequality.

Well, as it happens, the growth that is currently taking place in the United States is occurring under the rule of a powerful corporate and imperial plutocracy which has enacted numerous policies -- for example the unilateral invasion and occupation of Iraq and the passage of gigantic and regressive tax cuts made at the expense of programs for the economically disadvantaged -- that have been consistently opposed by the populace, which is in danger of becoming an ex-citizenry. The greatest concentration of economic power (full of dark elitist political and policy consequences) in the world is found in the United States, the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy nation, where the top 1 percent owns 40 percent of all wealth and millions of children live in poverty. Nine of ten Americans have experienced income stagnation or decline since the 1970s, a period in which the top 10 percent has seen its wealth and income multiply many times over. Big capital exercises pre-emptive, de facto veto power over numerous social policy issues, preventing, for example, the world’s wealthiest nation from introducing basic universal health insurance.

When Bush trumpets the recent inevitable economic upswing -- intimately related to the wage and business-slashing recession that has just concluded -- as the reason that we should vote for him, he is telling us to adopt the perspective and posture of prostitutes. We are supposed to be so grateful to him (for a job-generating expansion he did not create) that we drop our concerns over the nature of the jobs ("there's no such thing as a bad job" proclaimed the bipartisan US "welfare-to-work" doctrine in the 1990s) being created, the character of the society we inhabit, and the policies it imposes at home and abroad. We are asked to take the attitude of cheerful slaves, happy just to be well-fed and decently clothed by our all-knowing masters in an Orwellian land where high-state mendacity, and racist, poverty-exacerbating empire are sold to overworked, time-starved masses as expressions and agents of “truth,” “justice,” “freedom,” and societal “health” and “success.”

Its too much for this posting to say much about two other things we are supposed to forget: the bitter conflict between the egalitarian western democratic and republican tradition (epitomized by Thomas Jefferson and other US founders) and the core social relationship of "modern" capitalism -- that of subordinated employee to ruling employer, commonly described as “wage slavery” by the 19th century US labor movement -- and the uncomfortable little fact that American and American-model/US-imposed economic growth happens to be choking off the earth’s ecological capacity to carry human and many other forms of life. There’s nothing “healthy” about their “growth.”

These are the sorts of things that a serious left opposition, beyond the liberal extreme, would raise in response to recurrent White House jobs hoopla in both its Republican and Democratic variants.

Paul Street is a left social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at

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