Shock, Awe, and the Debt Limit

Perhaps you’ve heard that the United States’ full faith and credit is in trouble? For my first post here in a while, I’m going to provide a forum for a piece by my father, Sanford Thompson, an anti-war activist, community radio worker, and public-library scholar.  In response to a question from a friend who’ll be teaching a class on politics at an SEIU Local in Seattle, my dad wrote this on the debt limit.

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The debt limit fight – a phony crisis if there ever was one – has driven all other political news to the sidelines.  I’ve seen so many arguments about it I decided to try to make a classification of them.

Argument #1: (Conventional macroeconomics vs. economic lunacy)

This is terrible economics.  You don’t encourage the private sector to hire by cutting the public sector; that’s how depressions start. 

This is the kind of argument you hear from economic experts like [Paul] Krugman.  The US Republican Party are not the only lunatics here, official economists on both sides of the Atlantic have been gripped by a doctrine that sees austerity as the only answer to every problem; Krugman calls them “Austerians”.  He calls the Republicans “crazy”.

Problem: there is no explanation for how or why this delusion became so widespread.  It’s treated like a flu epidemic or something. There is no particular course of action urged.

Argument #2: (Republican policy fail)

This is the Republicans’ fault.  They got the tax cuts they wanted.  Likewise the deregulation, foreign wars, bloated Pentagon budget, etc.  It is their policies which have led to this disaster.

This is the argument made by official Democratic intellectuals and policy types.  It can be seen in Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, Washington Monthly, and similar.  The implication is that if the Republicans had any integrity they would retire en masse, slink home, and never say a peep about public affairs again.

Problem: In its most partisan form, this argument focuses on the Republican Party alone, and ignores its many willing partners, including Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, the Pentagon complex, and so on, not to mention the Democrats.  The remedy is to vote Democrats in (particularly progressive Democrats) and Republicans out.

Argument #3: (Republicans as predators and wreckers)

This is hypocrisy.  The Republicans and their clients have no problem with deficits when their friends are getting the money.  Their goal now is to cut spending to people whom they never liked in the first place.

This argument is heard from people like Thomas Frank, James Galbraith and other progressive big thinkers.  It is often expressed in the left blogosphere.  It explicitly calls out the Republican client base and highlights that they are waging class warfare on the American people.  It relates the economic madness to other issues like anti-immigrant hysteria, racism, the attacks on labor, anti-abortion (and anti-birth control!) jihads, the cost of political campaigns and associated corruption of US politics generally.

Problem: This is really just a slightly more muscular version of #2.  It widens the focus to classes seen as large social groups behind the institutional actors, but the remedy is not that different; it may be expansive enough to include local or state-level third parties, the labor movement, etc.

Argument #4: (The big project)

This is class war, aimed to destroy the 20th-century social contract.  The population is confused and vulnerable; now is the time to strike.  In this context, the fake “Tea Party” movement, the attacks on labor and women, and everything else make perfect sense.

This is the kind of argument articulated by people like Naomi Klein, Amy Goodman, William Greider and others.  Some bloggers express this as well.  It is explains the gamut of reactionary policies today, not just economic and budget issues.  It goes deeper than #3; the social issues are not just honky WASP prejudices, but part of an economic platform.  It situates the political aspect of the crisis in historical context, going back to Goldwater, Reagan and Nixon.

Problem: by implication, this argument harks back to a golden age when politicians were sane, business leaders were moderate, and the middle class had security.  It doesn’t really explain why the class war is being waged with such intensity now.  And it doesn’t answer the question whether that lost paradise didn’t really contain the seeds of its own destruction, and if so, what we should do differently now.

Argument #5 (Capitalism cannot work)

As long as we have capitalism, we will have crises, stagnation, poverty and all the rest.  In this context, other things make sense as well, including the abandonment of production in favor of speculation, runaway jobs, global destitution, destruction of the environment, etc.  The only answer is a new form of civilization.

This is the full-blown Marxist or socialist argument I would like to hear, but don’t.  It is implicit in some of the environmental/climate change critiques, as well as the more moral (as opposed to political) critiques offered by people like Chris Hedges.

Problem: The argument is better on explanation than on prescription.  There has never been a more powerful framework for analyzing society than the one pioneered by Marx & Engels.  But the policy prescriptions are muddy at best.  The term “socialism” is ill-defined and loaded with lots of negative baggage.  There is no agreed policy suite.  Socialism was abandoned by Western intellectuals en masse during the 1980s; the subsequent debacles in the USSR and China seemed to confirm its demise.  So the subject hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, in spite of the fact that it is now more urgent than ever.

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[back to Jay] The final question posed here– what would be the substance of an anti-capitalist critique?– will be another of this blog’s ongoing projects. (Oh, and: lest you doubted.) In the meantime, I’m working on a good old-fashioned staples-and-tape zine on leftists and the 2012 election, pieces of which (between snips on literature, philosophy, punk rock, and pedagogy) are going to appear on this blog.Thanks for reading my dad.

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