What Do We Do Now (Posted March 25, 2017)

I originally posted this early last year, and realized, as I was preparing a 2018 update, that it never made it's way here. So, here it is.

Putting aside the general dread that many suspect and minority communities have faced and will continue to face under this new administration (if it can even be called that, as it has so far failed to administer - a more apt term might be “regime” or “ruling party“), one of the benefits of a paradigm shifting event such as the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States is the opportunity to clearly view two distinct periods of history: the period before and the period after. Very rarely does a person get to see the clear dividing line outside of a history book: these events happen once or twice in a generation, although in the last hundred years, moments such as this have become more frequent.

I think the age we just left began on October 6, 1979: the date Volcker raised interest rates to curb inflation.

At that time, inflation was rising, and the Fed was issued orders to do something about it, as was its purview. And, if the following few years are any indication, what they did worked: inflation declined, as did the unemployment rate, and the recession triggered by it was mild at best. But, it came at the expense of big business and corporate interests, and the resulting panic led to corporate-run protest and the eventual surge of support for Reagan to defeat Carter in the 1980 election.

Reagan then had business to thank, and thank them he did: the political concessions to business began, and created the foundation for the economic realities of today: what was called Reaganomics or Trickle-down economics could also be called the “age of flexibility“:

“The rise in interest rates not only contained inflation, it made possible a new organization of the means of production and distribution. The ‘rigidity’ of the Fordist production line gave way to a new ‘flexibility’, a word that will send chills of recognition down the spine of every worker today. This flexibility was defined by a deregulation of Capital and labor, with the workforce being casualized (with an increasing number of workers employed on a temporary basis), and outsourced.” - Marc Fisher. “Capitalist Realism.” iBooks.

Companies beat back and undid centuries of work by unions and labor forces. They began reducing and eliminating pensions, offering instead employee funded “retirement plans”. They outsourced work, and started holding tax money overseas. And oh, did they bank: banking became the number one industry in America, and its machinations inserted themselves into every company and took over the world.

As a result, American workers both became weapons of capitalist interests (as voting blocs for their companies continued stability) as well as its victims.

“Where formerly workers could acquire a single set of skills and expect to progress upwards through a rigid organizational hierarchy, now they are required to periodically re-skill as they move from institution to institution, from role to role. As the organization of work is decentralized, with lateral networks replacing pyramidal hierarchies, a premium is put on ‘flexibility’.” Excerpt From: Marc Fisher. “Capitalist Realism.”

Entire regions of the country dry up and go broke. Wealth moves and shifts with breakneck speed through and out of industry and into banking and “the service economy”, a nice euphemism for the transition out of skilled labor and into interpersonal labor, a transition much of the skilled labor force has struggle to make for three decades.

This had consequences. “Flexibility” is a positive spin on “instability” or “precarious employment”: it’s hard to plan for retirement, or even a vacation (or college, or a hospital stay) when you no longer can depend on regular employment and retirement benefits. Instability as a temporary condition is bad enough, but instability as a way of life for an entire country had and continues to have ripple effects, such as an ever increasing rate of stress, anxiety, depression, mental illness, debt, and drug use.

Capitalism at its strongest is capitalism at its most uncaring: success is paraded around for the world to see, while failure is lonely and shameful. Failure is also personal: it’s not the system’s fault you couldn't swing it. A system of haves and have-nots turned into a system of fewer have-mores and many have-nots, all the while purporting itself to be a system of haves and soon-to-haves. Living in this world means, if you’re not wealthy, you have no one to blame but yourself. Personal responsibility, or, the privatization of shame.

The code of personal responsibility also took the place of what had previously been a growing and secure social safety net, where over time people saw fit to ensure that many important groups were lifted out of terrible poverty and brought to a living, worthwhile existence. These were, of course, never meant to exist without the systems of workplace care for employees in place at the time, but they served important enough purpose and were very popular, until this era, where they became evidence of a government that was all of a sudden ‘inefficient’ and should instead be “run like a business“. It swallowed all those who fought for it, such that the dominant political theories of the age became neoliberalism and neoconservativism, the Neo- representing a central agreement on monetary policy with only our role as the world’s policeman in question. By sending the debate out of the country, we were distracted from the war being waged on us.

All of this was new, but it feels so dominant and principal to American and to much extent modern neoliberal life. Pensions are now gone. Labor is a shell of what it once was. This generation has no memory of job security, and in an effort to enter a competitive (read: shrinking) labor force, sends themselves into debt that increases at astronomical rates just to get the same jobs they could have gotten without going to college, and worst of all, they know this and do it anyway. Imagine the consequences of that worldview, and you’re only just getting started with a single chain of events, starting in early October, 1979.

What else sprung from that well? Those families who had the rug pulled out from under them, first by companies moving their jobs, then by companies replacing them with robots (in a literally dehumanizing move that will only get worse as time and tech go forward) were given the tools to not only shame themselves into continued compliance, but given a scapegoat to blame their own downturn: immigrants. This has never made much sense, but has always been effective in shifting the gaze and blame away from the people who made the decisions that hurt the people in question. Even in the most literal terms, where an illegal immigrant came to America and “took” an American’s job, it was the company that hired that person out of a desire to pay less for the same work that deserved the scorn, not the immigrant. Instead of understanding that we couldn't expect anything else from the immigrant, desperate enough for a new life that he could take a job for a wage less than is dignified, we were forced to understand that it was unfair for us to expect a business to do anything other than maximize profit, and turned our ire to those who provided them an offer too good to refuse.

The economic transition pulled money from one group and gave it to another; pulled money and resources out of the heartland and onto the coasts. It created a political divide backed by fomenting resentment and capitalist disdain for failure: the heartland became vulnerable to populist and xenophobic sentiment, while the cities could not resist graphs and charts showing the shrinkage of the heartland’s contribution to the economy.

“The economy“. Another consequence of 10/6/79 was the conflation, politically motivated and spun, between economic success and national success. A better economy and a higher GDP meant /and had to mean/ a better country. Wealth became a barometer for national success, and in fact the only barometer that mattered, which meant a citizen asking himself Kennedy’s question for his time would have only one answer: make more money. When we become dollars as a country, we become dollars as an individual, and one by one, we began to value ourselves by how much we made and how much we were worth.

It was an age of capitalism run amok, a takeover of the political and the social by the economic that rewarded itself with wealth and prosperity without the guilt of understanding that all that money came from somewhere and was never to return. It was a swindling of America by its fellow Americans, the robbery of the many by the few.

We staved off inflation and avoided a recession, but the reaction was that we went insane. It started slow, but enveloped all of us, and as a result, in November of 2016, enough people were so frustrated with the system that it elected the only person they could see with the will and means to blow it all up, the person who valued all the things they were taught to value, and the person who stirred up the ire of all the people who had screwed them over for decades: Donald Trump.

You don’t get to take back a decision like that. It’s like the decision to get a divorce: whatever the discussion was before, the question is now “how did it come to this point, where someone was so fed up that they wanted to do that”. It must prompt examination on all sides if growth and recovery is to happen.

Because, of course, Trump is an incompetent, corrupt, and selfish buffoon. He is obnoxiously, transparently so. He, with a veil as thin as the single ply toilet paper teachers now have to buy for their students, conned and swindled the American political process out of service to his massive, bloated ego. His methods are documented and his previous cons and failures profound and open. But to really understand why he’s there, we have to look at him as the vessel for dissatisfaction with the system that is currently in place, and even among liberals, the amazing thing is that that dissatisfaction is shared.

Thank about it: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders made up a majority of the political energy of 2016. Two candidates whose basic philosophy was “blow it all up“. If those two had faced off in the General, we’d have had a debate between two visions of a new America: in the race we got, we saw a grenade go up against the human embodiment of the status quo. A Sanders/Trump campaign would have accurately represented the political climate: speaking as a converted Hillary voter, it was obvious she was a stand-in, meant to act for those dissatisfied as a cypher in order to beat the other side.

What’s important to note, here, is that while all this is going on, the world is facing some major problems, problems as a result of not just this era but the eras before it, where lay capitalism existed before mutating into what it’s become today.

  • We’re at the precipice of a mass labor crisis, where technology and automation stand to displace billions of workers: what are we going to do when they put their hands out? What will they do when they come away with nothing?

  • The era of Free Trade gave capitalism global exploitative reach and moved money worldwide, but also created a global labor market that needed to move freely to meet the needs of the global capital market. This has created both an expectation of free mobility and the crisis of culture that grips the movements taking power in the US and Europe. They are as powerful as they are doomed to fail: any effort to isolate and purify culture in the age of the internet is a fool’s errand. But, on a mass social level, as much as we want and wish to be accepting of all, migration and culture mixing of the type we’re seeing and about to see are wholly new: how will people react? What will happen as a result?

  • Oh, and we’re destroying the planet, with no ability to coordinate on a global level to slow down because the frameworks to enact global policy don’t exist. The consequences of this will be slow and then very fast, and will result in millions if not billions dead and resource desperation that could throw the entire sociopolitical spectrum into chaos.

  • The citizens of America and the West are in a precarious place to deal with all of this, because as a whole we’re overworked, in debt, mentally ill, obese, and undereducated, which we make up for by being religious and ignorant. Europe is being and has been incapacitated by the second problem, Russia would lead except it has even less of a plan than the West does. (China I will get to later.)

For these problems, the West submits the following solutions:

  • Mass labor crisis? Never heard of it.

  • For the second problem, Trump represented isolationist, nationalist interests: the idea that you could undo globalism and become a national economy that fought for individual supremacy. Now, this presents problems because a) that’s fascism, but b) the companies Trump would recruit to work for American benefit no longer represent American interests, as they operate on a global scale, and also don’t bring enough prosperity down to the people that work for them, so they effects of success in this area wouldn’t translate to an assuaged politic. This is not the kind of national economy that builds ships anymore: Pepsi and Coke will not save America. Sanders simply suggested that we buffer the impact globalization had on communities in the US by investing in programs designed to help them, while continuing to participate in a global economy and developing sensible immigration policy in light of global needs. Clinton adopted similar tactics, but they never came off as genuine because she has been so instrumental in representing and creating the system as it existed. So, not much coming from there. Trump’s victory here represents not victory by one principle over another, but stasis: he doesn’t have the political power and ability necessary to make a huge difference here, and even if he did, his proposed solutions and policies won’t do anything to solve the problem, so what we can expect is an unregulated increase in the problem until it explodes in violence or war.

  • It’s clear that no party has the ability to mount a meaningful resistance to climate change, partially because of the gentleman’s agreement on fiscal policy (which as a general rule abhors “sustainability” and scoffs at preservation of natural resources over taking a profit), but also partially because a single nation does not possess the necessary jurisdiction to address the problem. No framework for global action exists, and no one is building it, or can even envision what it looks like or how it would work. Toothless international agreements are the nom d’être, and they work about as well as you’d think.

  • We respond to our declining health with denial, fanaticism, reliance on more and more drugs, a dependence on technology and social media on the level of and declining into addiction, and post-modern nihilism and ironic detachment. We know we are powerless to stop it, so we decided not to care.

If we’re going to see the next age as anything other than a rapid decline into chaos as a result of these problems, or if we’d like avoid the resulting world order created as a result of these problems coming to a head being totally reactionary, we might serve ourselves by proactively thinking about these problems and how we might solve them. We have two choices: either solve these problems, or react to their consequences. One will be bloodier.

Here are some thoughts:

  • I’ll start with the most outlandish: the single most beneficial thing we could do for the West is to release the stranglehold Capitalism has on it, and to adopt a more people-centric political and moral philosophy. We need to consider the consequences people have been subjected to as people in order to empathize and raise the standard of living for everyone. It is clear that at this stage, Capitalism the way we are doing it is hurting way more than it is helping, if you look at the American people. If we were looking at a communist nation, we’d expect them to say the same thing about themselves, and would put them down as blind ideologues if they didn’t. We just are in so much denial that we can’t see our equivalent of bread lines and food shortages. The ground work of this on a cultural level is being laid in the slow movement from post-modernist irony and detachment into more genuine, personal emotion in our popular culture. We need to fan those flames and institutionalize actually /caring/ in all levels of society and government. Ending capitalism is hard enough, if not impossible, because no one can imagine anything outside of it. Even China and Cuba are semi-capitalist now. What we can demand is that the State, as much as it exists, should serve the general will of its people instead of the whims of Capital. This means social programs, meaningful social infrastructure, and public service. Government should not run like a business: it should run like a public service, because it is one.

  • American politics is broken. We need to fix it in order for America to play a meaningful role in the world. That means we need to re-enfranchise people politically, which means we need new parties. In my view, we have too many people for two parties, which means we need a new voting method and a new representative calculation that undoes gerrymandering by combining smaller districts into multi-member districts elected by proportional representational voting. We also need universal voting, including voting for felons. People have been ripped out of the driver’s seat: we need to put them forcefully back in at the level of the legislative. This whole White Knight executive idea is dangerous, and we’re about to find out why (as if we hadn’t learned already).

  • We will never be able to go back to a world before the internet, which means we’ll never be able to delude ourselves into thinking we have borders. They make sense for taxes and militaries, but beyond that, borders are an illusion. Policy must be developed in the real world, and this is the real world. What this looks like? Beats the fuck out of me. As a result, we need to take advantage of us all being connected and work for form some kind of global government. It was a revolutionary idea to form a nation out of states, and it will be revolutionary to form a world out of nations, but it can be done, and it must be done if we’re to stand a chance at saving the planet and solving the labor problem.

These are all full of holes, and lacking serious implementation details, but my point is that these are attempts at pointing toward solutions to actual problems we all face. They aren't coming from the leaders we elect because we don’t know to hold our leaders accountable for solving these problems.

But the problems aren't going away, and can't be avoided by moving to a different country or going on permanent vacation to some island with drinks with little umbrellas in them, or excursions in some natural oasis isolated from TV and internet. Global warming will find you there, and you can't afford to stay away long enough because employment is precarious and you’re expected to answer email on the weekends now. This is the time to actually think about problems we all face, because we have the same alternative: dealing with the fallout after it explodes. That, in some small way, is what we’re doing now: dealing with a world that could elect Donald Trump as President of America only after it already did, and it was too late to take it back.

Anyway, that’s what I've been thinking about since November.