Monday, June 6, 2011

Diminishing Hopes: The Politics of American Unemployment

By Ben Schreiner

The May jobs report was nothing less than abysmal.  The month’s meager—although not unexpected—level of job creation also signals a diminished hope for progressive politics heading into the 2012 presidential election. 

A mere 54,000 new jobs were created last month (the fewest in eight months), leaving 14 million Americans unemployed, while another 25 million remain marred in underemployment.  Any lingering hope of a stable recovery has vanished, as the economy barrels headlong towards an intractable double-dip recession.  Although—as Paul Krugman has rightly noted—whether the economy officially backslides into a double-dip remains rather immaterial to those already wallowing in their own personal depressions.

In regards to presidential politics, the bleak jobs report will assuredly refocus attention on the economy.  For Obama and the Democrats this can only spell trouble.  Paltry job creation continuing into 2012 will no doubt embolden Republican attacks, forcing Democrats to undertake the unenviable task of arguing that the jobs picture would be far worse if they had not assumed the helms of power in 2008.  Proving a negative to an electorate awash in unemployment and rampant underemployment will be near impossible.  Meanwhile, Republican attacks levied against Obama’s stewardship of the economy, whatever their particular integrity or merit, will assuredly resonate. 

This political dynamic has firmly tied the Republican prospects to a faltering economy, and thus given Republican legislators nationwide a direct incentive to undermine the economy as best they can.  Hence, Republicans—driven as well by deep neoliberal orthodoxy—have happily capitalized on soaring governmental debt to slash and burn spending at all levels.  Although Democrats have also widely knelt at the altar of austerity, showing their innate affinity for neoliberal ideals. Of course, this austerity fetish has only exacerbated the employment problem.  The May jobs report notes that city and county governments cut 30,000 jobs last month, including 18,000 educators (the much celebrated economic cure-all of education becomes a rather disingenuous and farcical notion if schools are left hemorrhaging teachers). 

The political beauty of the Republican posture, though, is that it is nothing less than a grand self-fulfilling prophecy.  As Republicans endlessly and instinctually argue, the government doesn’t create jobs (or, apparently, jobs worth saving).  And now by starving government budgets and payrolls, aided by a cavalcade of daft Democrats, Republicans are proven ‘right.’

The sheer gall of Republican led attacks regarding the economy and job creation is also something to be marveled.  Capturing the general neoliberal inspired and Republican utilized rhetorical attack last week in an appearance on the PBS Newshour (a network conservatives deride, yet readily appear on), the Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore declared that the Keynesian based policies of the Democrats (?) had been an utter disaster in terms of job creation and that it was “time to hold Keynesians to account for their failure [emphasis added].”  Forget the neoliberal based policies that precipitated the current mass unemployment—we are told—it’s the Keynesians’ fault!  The crash of 2008 and its preceding origins have apparently been dropped down the right’s vast memory hole.

The absurdity of neoliberals laying blame for the stagnate labor market at the feet of anyone but themselves aside, the general sentiment does hold merit.  The economic policies of Obama and the Congressional Democrats have indeed failed.  Further, whether Democratic policies may be considered Keynesian or not is rather moot, for the Keynesian model is not a truly credible alternative—unmasked as ineffective as far back as the 1970s.  So, if neoliberalism caused the crisis and Keynesianism (or Keynesian-lite) has failed to resolve it, what is to be done?

 The Alternatives of 2012
The financial crash of 2008, as should now be clear, was not a structural crisis, but rather a systemic crisis—a crisis of capitalism (more specifically, neoliberal capitalism).  Given this systemic nature, the crisis can only be resolved via a complete break from the system in which it originated.  This means that the current neoliberal capitalist model must, and necessarily will, be replaced—much the same as the Keynesian model was unceremoniously abandoned amidst economic tumult and crisis of the 1970s. 

The future neoliberal successor will take one of two general forms, with its final shape undoubtedly formed by the outcome of the 2012 presidential campaign and election.  The first alternative is one of mere cosmetics.  In short, it entails throwing structural fixes at a systemic problem and hoping that in doing so, consumer and financial confidence can be adequately restored.  Although this may indeed prove sufficient to save the neoliberal dominant capitalist model from the immediate precipice, it can only prolong the time before the next inevitable and more fundamental crisis occurs.  This, though, appears to be the preferred establishment choice at the moment.  It also seems to be the Democrats’ 2012 plan: stabilize the sinking ship just long enough for Obama to secure a second term.

The second alternative is found in a complete break from the neoliberal capitalist model, occurring via either a right or left alternative.  The right alternative appears to be of a stark neo-fascist shade.  This alternative has already coalesced into a disproportionably powerful movement and is currently in rather rapid ascendancy (see the corporate infused Tea Party).  And now with the full cast of dimwitted Republican Presidential hopefuls eagerly courting the Party’s Tea Party ultra-right, this reactionary alternative looks poised to gain further traction amongst the Republican Party establishment. 

The left alternative, on the other hand, has failed to find as lucrative of a source for its own advancement as that of the right.  Moreover, the corporate funded Democrats, seeking to avert any potential hiccup in the Obama reelection campaign, have aggressively tried to reign in, and suppress, any and all rumblings from the wider left.  In fact, the Democratic establishment remains so frightened of independent progressive power that it has even shied away from its own energizing base, seen in the indifference the Obama Administration offered in response to the uprising in Wisconsin. 
Perhaps—and this remains solely a blind and unfounded hope—the continued malaise of Obama and the Democrats in regards to jobs will stir an alternative and genuine realignment of the left.  Perhaps the jobs crisis will finally steer the left toward the development of a movement independent of the Democratic Party.  Indeed, the labor struggle in Wisconsin and the broader Mid-West, along with the recent speech by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka at the National Press Club on the need to develop labor’s political independence, are both hopeful signs.  Yet, as the saga of Obama from candidate to President has proven, hope is rather fleeting.

Read in CounterPunch.

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