Guest commentary: Social progress is not the result of technology, but democracy
For society to make general progress, gains in economic productivity must be translated into a broad rise in the standard of living. This can take place through increased wages, consumption, and services, decreased work weeks, expanded education, better health care, old age pensions, longer life spans, and more. Nations become developed partly by investing surplus wealth in government programs and services, and by employing those individuals whose labor is no longer needed due to increases in workplace productivity. Most government programs enhance the general standard of living; moreover, government spending counters the cyclical downturns in employment and demand that characterize industrial, corporate and financial capitalism and their destructive monopolistic and speculative practices.
But for the rich to continue to get richer, the poor to get poorer, and the middle class to remain marginally satisfied with its relative levels of consumption, indebtedness and overwork (described as "lifestyles"), the majority of Americans have to be convinced by the ownership class that our collective economic world is not and cannot be of our own democratic and purposeful making, especially regarding government spending for the public good and necessary — indeed desirable — taxation policies.
As a corollary we must also believe that our individual economic circumstances are largely the result of our own personal choices in a "free market" that — in spite of radical economic inequality, high unemployment, and ongoing institutionalized racism—somehow mystically incorporates "equal opportunity." If character cannot defeat circumstance in America, then so much the worse for character.
The mainstream media, major think tanks and large parts of academia are thus utilized to spin tall, alarmist and self-contradictory tales of ruthless global competition, technological determinism, demographic catastrophe, generational conflict, school and parental failure, personal irresponsibility, governmental corruption, public debt, entitlement bankruptcy, and inevitable public scarcity and necessary sacrifice (except for the rich). In the meantime we are sold the latest smartphone, violent video game, and next phase of our ongoing, endless, Orwellian wars. After all, we've still got an economy to run.
Usually conspicuously absent from this laundry list of allegedly implacable realities and morally urgent reckonings are the very real threats (to the species) of environmental degradation, climate change, rampant militarism, and nuclear war. Honest recognition of these might be disruptive to both capital accumulation and the American pursuit of global military hegemony — admittedly two sides of the same coin. Science and reason are to be applied to some things (hedge funds, drones) but not other things (publicly owned banks, disarmament). Moral judgments applied to single mothers cannot be applied to either Wall Street or the national security state, which by definition promote and protect our "freedoms" while not endangering "family values," foreclosures and homelessness aside.
The individuals who so ably perform this intellectual service of mystification and distraction, from "respected" political pundits to college presidents, rarely settle for low six-figure remuneration. They are therefore avid in their willingness to accept the above conventional crisis wisdom, which pleases their much wealthier masters. They are relentless in their suppression of the normal intellectual curiosity that is visited upon those of us who, through conscience or necessity, would like to better inform ourselves of the verifiable possibilities and limits that might shape intelligent personal and political choices. Critical thinking has gone too far if it questions the ideal goodness of the system for all of us, whatever the unpleasant real consequences for most of us, not to mention those in other lands.
Because our freedom under capitalism is abstractly axiomatic, pragmatic violations of individual rights can be justified, dismissed, or ignored. Thus a former Provost at the University of Illinois and current chancellor at the University of California at Davis, and someone strongly affiliated with the military-industrial research establishment, countenanced the macing of silently and nonviolently protesting students unwise enough to identify with the "99 percent."
The phony crises that dominate our political discourse, from fiscal cliffs to Social Security insolvency to educational test scores, are obfuscations of and distractions from genuine and ongoing structural crises in industrial, corporate and financial capitalism. Capitalism historically has proceeded from crisis to crisis, including the Great Depression. These crises are generally characterized by increased competition, falling rates of profit, increased financial speculation (including in land and the stock market), and the bursting of speculative bubbles that destroys wealth, investment, demand and employment.
While fortunes may be lost, the most profound effects fall on the working class. The working class now includes most of what is called the middle class, and is comprised of both the employed and unemployed, many of both groups living in poverty or what is now gently called "near poverty." Capitalists destroy workers' ability to produce, and then demand they "sacrifice" in terms of wages or employment, as well as public services.
During the post-war era, organized labor insured that workers' wages generally reflected increased productivity. In the 1970s, owners and investors fought back, famously labeling falling profits, greater general prosperity, increased civil rights, and intense popular opposition to the Vietnam War as a "crisis in democracy" — as in too much of it for the likes of those who own the country. Since then, while general workers' productivity and per capita GDP have continued to increase, median family income has stagnated. While 2/3 of wage gains have gone to the top 10 percent, the remaining third is left to the bottom 90 percent, many of whom have either seen no gains or their wages effectively lowered.
It is by choice, strategy, and policy — as well as subterfuge — that American workers have been put in competition with foreign workers while most professionals are protected; that American manufactured goods are "uncompetitive" due to the intentional over-valuation of the dollar; that technology is used to eliminate rather than create jobs; that short-changed workers go into debt to acquire the goods and services that they produce; that students go into debt to acquire the "human capital" that will allow them to be exploited by a financialized and low-wage economy; that state and local governments are beggared, government services reduced, and public employee unions vilified, while investment bankers whose Ponzi schemes have grievously and repeatedly damaged the economy are bailed out by the Federal Reserve, their coffers now full with uninvested "liquidity" and labeled "too big to fail" and "too big to prosecute."
It is in this context that federal deficits to stimulate demand and create jobs are attacked as irresponsible and "unsustainable" (even when interests payments are historically low as a percentage of GDP), and workers are told they must "sacrifice." And while "bankrupt" Social Security largely meets the demands of strict and separate accounting for decades into the future in spite of the regressive nature of payroll taxes, the Pentagon and its subsidiaries are under no such demands on even a monthly basis. Why should elderly individuals living on minimal incomes be excluded from these egregious double standards, especially double standards that have the added advantage of being inhumane on both ends of the stick?
Social progress is not naturally fore-ordained by technology, productivity, so-called free markets or self-interested rational choices; no less by exorbitant profit incentives that reward unethical behavior. The notion of general "sacrifice" is meaningless if not perverse in a context in which basic standards of equality, cooperation, fairness and justice have not been established. The present system and its media maintain authority by suppressing and subverting democratic processes that might establish such standards for the governance of economy and society. In turn it is only through democratic movements reflecting social solidarity and rational discourse that the moral illegitimacy and inherent inhumanity of the current greed-driven system can be exposed and challenged. This was learned a half-century ago; apparently it has to be learned again.
David Green (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Urbana; he regularly contributes to News from Neptune on Urbana Public Television.