There’s a Crisis in U.S. Capitalism
By Richard D. Wolff, Professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His two recent books with Democracy at Work are Understanding Marxism and Understanding Socialism, both available at democracyatwork.info. This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Capitalism has always had business cycles. The capitalist enterprises that produce goods and services are distinctively organized around the conflicted relationship of employer and employees and the competitive relationship of markets. These central relationships of capitalism together generate cyclical instability. Wherever capitalism became a society’s economic system over the last three centuries, business cycles recurred every four to seven years. Capitalism has mechanisms to survive its cycles, but they are painful, especially when employers fire employees. Widespread pain (unemployment, bankruptcies, disrupted public finances, etc.) brought the label “crisis” to capitalism’s cyclical downturns. Only on special occasions, and rarely, did the cyclical crises in capitalism become crises of capitalism as a system. That has usually required other non-economic problems (political, cultural, and/or natural) to reach crescendo peaks around the same time as a cyclical economic downturn. Today is a time of crisis both in and of U.S. capitalism.
U.S. economic policy now focuses on what is already the worst business cycle downturn since the 1929 crash. As data accumulate, it may well prove to be the worst in global capitalism’s entire history. Forty million jobless U.S. workers find incomes lost, savings disappearing and over-indebted family finances worsening.
Today’s mass unemployment also threatens those still employed, the remaining 120 million members of the U.S. labor force. Mass unemployment always invites employers to cut wages, benefits and working conditions. If any of their employees quit, many among the millions of unemployed will accept those abandoned jobs. Knowing that, most employees accept their employers’ cuts. Employers will justify them as required by “the pandemic” or by what they say are its effects on their profits.
Led by Trump and the Republicans and tolerated by the Democrats’ leaders, U.S. employers are intensifying class war against workers. That is what mass joblessness accomplishes. On one hand, Washington bails out employers with trillions of dollars. On the other, Washington enables (by funding) a mass joblessness that directly undermines the entire working class. Germany and France, for example, could not allow such joblessness because of their labor movements’ and socialist parties’ social influences. In sharp contrast, the predictable results of mass joblessness in the U.S. are deepening social divisions, renewed racism, social protests, and government repression (often violent).
A desperate president fears electoral losses because his government failed to prepare for or prevent (1) a bad virus or (2) a capitalist business cycle downturn or (3) their catastrophic combination. White supremacy, police brutality, mass media control, and so on serve Trump’s efforts to mobilize his political base. So do his attacks on foreign scapegoats aimed to distract blame from his government and from system failures. These include immigrants, China, the WHO, Iran, former European allies, etc.
All these tactical maneuvers by the Trump/GOP regime provoke oppositions. However, they remain dispersed and unorganized politically. Instead of mobilizing and coordinating them, the Democratic Party leadership does the reverse. It undermined the Bernie Sanders movement, especially by splitting it from a large part of the middle-income African American community. By thereby blocking, if only temporarily, a powerful emerging opposition, Democratic Party leaders deterred mass opposition to bailouts, unemployment, minimal COVID-19 testing, and all the government’s other failures. They just want to win the November 2020 election. Biden’s vague “return to normal” promises are offered as soothing antidotes to the Trump/GOP’s crisis-wracked, fear-mongering divisiveness. Trump plunges ahead with a radically pro-capitalist agenda coupled with reactionary cultural and political warfare against civil rights and liberties. It is the old GOP strategy but a much more extreme version. The Democrats counter with reactionary responses: a revived Cold War (against Russia and/or China) and a domestic safety less shredded than what the GOP plans. Culture wars are perhaps the only realm where Democrats sense some votes in not caving further to right-wing pressures.
Alternating Democratic and Republican governments produced today’s impasse. Global isolation accompanies the U.S.’s declining economic and political footprints. Its technological supremacy is increasingly challenged globally and especially in and by China. Efforts to break that challenge have not succeeded and will not likely do better in the future. Further China-bashing—pursued by both major parties—will only slow global economic growth just when many circumstances converge to make that the least desirable future. Record-breaking levels of government, corporate and household debt make the U.S. economy exceptionally vulnerable to future shocks and cyclical downturns.
The U.S. population below 40 years of age struggles increasingly with unsustainable debts. The jobs and incomes it faces have already undermined access to the “American Dream” they were promised as children. Nor have they much hope for the future as today’s pandemic-cum-crash imposes more hardships on them. That protests surge, provoked further by government repression, should surprise no one.
Repeated polls where half the young “prefer socialism over capitalism” reflect growing antipathy to their deteriorating capitalist reality. In the Cold War-shaped U.S. school system since the late 1940s, socialism’s substantive theories and practices were not seriously taught. Debates among socialists over how socialism was changing or should change remain largely unknown. Today’s growing interests in critiques of capitalism and in socialism’s varieties reflect young peoples’ rejection of Cold War taboos as well as a capitalism that has failed them.
No “return to normal” after the combined systemic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and capitalist depression is likely. Many want no such return because they believe that that normal led to both the pandemic and the economic crash. They also believe that the managers of that old normal—corporate CEOs in both their private and governmental positions—should face tough public scrutiny and opposition because of where that normal led and where it will likely lead again.
Those managers are not solving the problems they helped to create: utterly inadequate testing for the virus, bigger-than-ever bailouts for the biggest banks and corporations, mass unemployment, and deepening wealth and income inequalities.
Why then keep those managers in power? We should not expect different results from them now than when conditions were “normal.”
Of course protests flared up in and around African American communities. Beyond their long history of suffering social and employment discrimination and police oppression, it is important to remember that those communities suffered worst in the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Their unemployment then shot up, they lost homes disproportionately to foreclosures, etc. They have died from the coronavirus significantly more than white communities. Because of disproportionate reliance on low-paid service sector jobs, they have once again suffered disproportionately in 2020’s crash of U.S. capitalism. When a president then blatantly panders to white supremacy and white supremacists, while making and repeating racist comments, the ingredients are in place to provoke protests. However useful for Trump/GOP electoral campaigns, social protests and oppressive police responses add sharp social conflicts to the already disastrous combination of viral pandemic and economic crash.
Trump is a product and sign of U.S. capitalism’s exhaustion. The long, cozy governmental alternation between GOP and Democrats after the trauma of the 1930s Great Depression had achieved its purpose. It had undone FDR’s redistribution of wealth from the top to the middle and the bottom. It had “fixed” that problem by reversing the redistribution of wealth and income. The ideological cover for that “fix” was bipartisan demonization of domestic socialism combined with bipartisan pursuit of Cold War with the USSR. The major GOP vs. Democratic Party dispute concerned the modes and extents of governmental support for private capitalism (as in Keynes vs. Friedman, etc.). That minor squabble got raised to the status of “the major issue” for politicians, journalists, and academics to debate because they caved to the taboo on debates over capitalism vs. socialism.
Capitalism has so extremely redistributed wealth and income to the top 1 percent, so mired the vast majority in overwork and excess debt, and so extinguished “good jobs” (via relocating them abroad and automation) that the system itself draws ever-deeper disaffection, criticism, and opposition. At first, deepening social divisions expressed the system’s disintegration. Now open street protests take the U.S. a step closer to a full-on crisis of the system.
Trump subordinated the old managers of capitalism by politically threatening them with aroused, angry small businesses and middle-income workers. Trump promises the latter a return to what they had before the upwards redistribution of wealth hurt them. He tells the old managers that he and his base alone can secure their social positions atop an upwardly redistributed contemporary capitalism. They will save the old managers from Bernie, “progressivism” and “socialism.” The Democratic Party’s old, “centrist” leadership offers weak, partial opposition, hoping Trump goes too far and implodes the GOP.
In the wake of the pandemic and the massive unemployment used to “manage” it, wages and benefits will take major hits in the months and years ahead. Wealth will be further redistributed upward. Social divisions will deepen and so will social protests. This crisis in capitalism is also a crisis of capitalism.