Normalizing The Destruction Of America's Middle Class

Destroying the middle class in order to save "America". 30+ years of one-sided hegemonic warfare reaps huge rewards for highly-destructive GOP.

Checkers vs. chess. Knife to a gun fight. Yogurt spoon to a nuclear war. However you want to put it, for decades now, Republicans have running rings around Democrats, even as their policy ideas have failed spectacularly over and over again. In fact, every time one of their policy ideas fails spectacularly, that only creates a state of crisis which they use to promote an even more crazy set of ideas. There's a name for this: one-sided hegemonic warfare.

We see this immediately before us in this story:

Boehner Demands Medicare, Social Security And Medicaid Cuts To Raise Debt Limit
August 27th, 2013 12:44 pm
Jason Sattler

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) vowed on Monday that any increase in the debt limit would require cuts to the “mandatory side” of government spending.

“Now, it’s time to deal with the mandatory side,” Boehner told the crowd at a fundraiser for Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) in Boise, Idaho. “I’ve made it clear that we’re not going to increase the debt limit without cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit.”

“Mandatory” government spending includes Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and government pensions, all programs that benefit senior citizens who —a href=http://www.nationalmemo.com/carville-greenberg/why-seniors-are-turning-against-the-gop/>according to a recent poll from Democracy Corps— have begun to turn against the GOP.

This may not turn out to be a winning strategy for the GOP, but it creates a battle where there otherwise would be none. It is clearly an offensive, rather than a defensive strategy, meaing that once again the GOP is on the attack, defining the battlefield, setting the terms of debate. Even if they lose, they will be better positioned for the next battle and the one after that. Because positioning for battle is what they're all about.

Here, for example, Boehner is invoking a "principle" in the style of Wiley Coyote running off of a cliff—the “principle” that debt limits should only be increased by an amount equal to cuts imposed on long-term spending. It's a "principle" that was pulled out of thin air after the GOP won the 2010 mid-terms, directly contradicting what had been the operating principle since time began--that debt limits were increased without conditions. The only difference between Boehner & Wiley Coyote? Boehner will never look down. In this cartoon, he's got the creators on his side.

What's the reason for the new "principle"? First and foremost: Because the GOP believed they could get away with. And why did they believe this? Three main reasons: (1) Their dominance of the channels of political discourse. (2) Their resultant success in framing "out of control government spending" as the primary economic problem facing the nations. (3) The superficial appearances of acceptability: "balanced" nature of the 1-for-1 proposal, which is all the political discourse needs.

One-Sided Hegemonic Warfare

The dominance of the channels of political discourse is the result of conservatives virtually uncontested success in waging hegemonic warfare for the past 30+ years. Independent Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci developed the theory of cultural hegemony as a way to explain why the prolonged 19th Century struggle to gain voting rights for the working class did not lead directly to socialism, as most observers across the political spectrum had always assumed that it would. So long as the bourgiosie controlled the cultural institutions which defined social reality, they would set the basic rules of debate and thereby control the range of possible outcomes--thereby precluding even the possibility of a democratic socialist order. In order to make socialism democratically possible, the cultural institutions which define reality had to first be taken over by the forces of socialism, and in turn used to define a different reality.

This battle for the control of cultural institutions--which Gramsci also called the "war of position"—is the Gramscian meaning of the term "culture war", which is profoundly misunderstood in America today as a battle over non-economic political issues. This very mis-definition of the term "culture war" is an ironic example of the very thing that Gramsci meant: You can't possibly fight and win a culture war if you don't know what one is, but instead fight what your opponents have mis-defined it to be.

The 1970s were a crucial point of time, in which the post-WWII system of social welfare state appeasement—an appeasment that made possible the modern mass middle class—began to break down. It became obvious to Western elites that pressures for welfare state benefits could not be contained without a fundamental shift in their ideological stance. Rather than appeasing working- and middle-class demands for a humane form of capitalism, they needed to fight back, imposing a sharply contrasting model of social control. The shift in rationale could not be sold all in one piece, however, it represented a far too radical shift in ideology. And yet, the fundamental shift in elite thinking was begun, as described recently in this piece from Truthout.org:

Crisis of Humanity: Global Capitalism Breeds 21st Century Fascism
Monday, 26 August 2013 09:19 By William I Robinson, Truthout | News

In "Policing the Crisis," the classic 1978 study conducted by noted socialist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall and several colleagues, the authors show how the restructuring of capitalism as a response to the crisis of the 1970s - which was the last major crisis of world capitalism until the current one hit in 2008 - led in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to an "exceptional state," by which they meant a situation in which there was an ongoing breakdown of consensual mechanisms of social control and a growing authoritarianism. They wrote:

    This is an extremely important moment: the point where, the repertoire of hegemony through consent having been exhausted, the drift towards the routine use of the more repressive features of the state comes more and more prominently into play. Here the pendulum within the exercise of hegemony tilts, decisively, from that where consent overrides coercion, to that condition in which coercion becomes, as it were, the natural and routine form in which consent is secured. This shift in the internal balance of hegemony - consent to coercion - is a response, within the state, to increasing polarization of class forces (real and imagined). It is exactly how a 'crisis of hegemony' expresses itself … the slow development of a state of legitimate coercion, the birth of a 'law and order' society … the whole tenor of social and political life has been transformed by [this moment]. A distinctively new ideological climate has been precipitated (Policing the Crisis, pp. 320-321).

This is an accurate description of the current state of affairs. We are witnessing transitions from social-welfare states to social-control states around the world. We are facing a global crisis that is unprecedented, given its magnitude, its global reach, the extent of ecological degradation and social deterioration, and the sheer scale of the means of violence. We truly face a crisis of humanity; we have entered a period of great upheavals, of momentous changes and uncertainties. This systemwide crisis is distinct from earlier such episodes of world crisis in the 1930s or the 1970s precisely because world capitalism is fundamentally different in the early 21st century.

The Crisis Normalized

Robinson's piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I want to take a somewhat different tact—not least by focusing specifically on America. My point here is that the crisis of the 1970s was never actually resolved, it was merely normalized, and that part of that noramlization was that policy failures were routinized, so that each successive failure resulted in new situation where the failures that produced were simply accepted as fact—if not unquestionable "fact of nature"—and did nothing to call into question those who had been responsible. Those protected by this normalization were first and foremost conservative business and political elites, and then, over time, the neo-liberals who fundamentally supported them by superficially opposing them, only within carefully-defined limits.

While the policies have repeatedly failed as policies, they have repeatedly succeeded as political initiatives, because the purpose of political initiatives is to secure enough consent to continue governing, regardless of the consequences, I have elsewhere used the terms “mythos” and “logos” in roughly parallel terms to describe consensus-shaping vs. actually workable policies. Conservatives have repeatedly excelled in the realm of mythos, articulating how things ought to be seen fitting together, even as they've failed miserably in terms of logos, as the real world—and their policies—increasingly fall apart.

In the US, the first round of policy failure was Reagan's failure to balance the budget, as he had promised to do by cutting taxes. Reagan's budget diretor, David Stockman, argued that this failure was due to the "Triumph of politics", which made it impossible to get the budget cuts that would have made the budget balance. But this fundamentally misrepresesnts the original trickle-down/supply-side argument, which was that tax cuts were a free lunch--that they would pay for themselves and more, that cutting taxes would unleash an explosion of entreprenurial activity that would produce a sustained economic boom, balancing the budget as a result. The free lunch aspect was a key selling point, and the propaganda father of supply side, Jude Wanniski, made this explicit in his "two Santas" theory, as I desrbied last year in “Free Lunch Conservatism: The Santa who failed”.

Of course, the "two Santas" theory was a bust in multiple ways. Not only did tax cuts not pay for themselves, the "Reagan boom" was a bust in historical terms (far weaker than the JFK/LBJ boom before it, or even the Clinton boom that followed), and purchased in part by the mass exporting of America's industrial base. This is not to say the the US stopped all industrial activity. Clearly that didn't happen, as the US continues to have a significant manufacturing sector. But what did end was industrial employment as (a) America's economic engine, which (b) provided a secure middle-class income, with benefits, including health-care and retirement and (c) set the standard for all other workers in all other sectors. Some parts of this three-fold package decayed faster than others, but all three were set onto pathways of decay from 1980 onward with the election of Ronald Regan, if not before that with Jimmy Carter's rightward shift of the Democractic Party.

It should be noted that the "Reagan boom" was actually a sub-par "Keynesian" boom based on military spending along with top-heavy tax cuts, which above all disregarded the key Keynesian prescription that stimulus should come when the economy was depressed, and should be removed and paid down when the economy recovered. By denying Keynesianism on the one hand, and misapplying it on the other, so-called "Reaganomics" was able to pull off a spectacular political success (reflected in his 49-state re-election in 1984) despite a clear policy failure, which would subsequently be blamed on the very Keynesianism which had actually worked precisely as advertised. Reagan partly mitigated his policy failure by enacting a series of tax increases--which he largely obfuscated by rhetorical trickery.

The Post-Reagan Game Of Hot Potato

Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, tried to continue the same policy mix, but without the blind faith allegiance that Reagan enjoyed, his budget-preserving tax-raising was treated as a betrayal, rather than being accepted without question, as similar moves by Reagan had been. This response by movement conservatives--spearheaded in the House of Representatives by Newt Gingrich--implicitly acknowledged the failure of Reaganomics, but resituated it by denouncing Bush as "not really conservative" even though he was only doing what Reagan had done multiple times before him.

This rhetorical strategy was viable because of the Regan=true conservative/Bush=conservative betrayal schema, which would not have been salable with Reagan in both slots. It's vital to note that the "Reagan" in this schema is not Reagan as he actually governed, since Reagan's actual governance included tax hikes--like the one Bush was demonized for --as well as tax cuts. The "Reagan" in this schema was the insurgent candidate Reagan, the opposition figure who had no responsibility to govern. That Reagan alone was a pure "true conservative" and that Reagan remains to this day the Reagan that conservatives love. The Reagan that served as President could not get elected to Congress today. He compromised with Democrats repeatedly, as well as raising taxes all those times.

Following the repudiation of Bush Sr, conservatives came up with a new governing hero: Newt Gingrich, who then crashed and burned in record time. Having totally poisoned the atmosphere in Washington, conservatives then turned to George W. Bush, an "outsider" by virtue of ignoring both his father, the President and his grandfather, the Senator. Again, in terms of logos, this would not pass the laugh test. But in terms of mythos, it was fine, because conservatives said it was. And so Bush became the new "true conservative" from outside of Washington to bring conservatives to the promised land. And just like Reagan, his policies failed as well--but even more spectacularly. So spectacularly, in fact, that conservatives themselves eventually turned on him in the last few years of his presidency, when they began complaining that he, too, was "not a true conservative".

This brings us to the election of Obama, and the dawn of the Tea Party era. Obama's politics have been predicated on "finding consensus" with Republicans, but the consensus he's seeking is with Reagan- or Bush-era Republicans/conservatives, who movement conservatives themselves have now thoroughly rejected as "not really conservative". This is the context in which Obama repeatedly fails in his attempts to "find consensus". The driving reason for Obama's failure is (1) the previous failure of the conservatives he is trying to accomodate and (2) the current conservative repudiation of that failure as "not truly conservative". If conservatives had not been so successful in hegemonic warfare (if they had had any real opposition) then this sort of game would not play in Peoria. But *because* they've been so success on the hegemonic front, whatever they say, no matter how ludicrous, gets treated with extreme deference, and so we have entire genre of Versailles punditry devoted to "why Obama can't lead". We also get "principles" pulled out of thin air that are utterly ludicrous and fly in the face actual principles that have been in place for 60 years--such as routinely raising the debt limit,.

And so it is that by ignoring the actual failures of conservatism, we have perhaps the weakest House Speaker in US history presenting savage cuts to welfare state as a "balanced" "common sense" "compromise" position—and there will be plenty in the Versailles punditalkcrazy who will frame it in just those terms. This is how we get the framing of a story that normalizes the next step in the ongoing destruction of America's middle class, and makes it seem downright crazy to vigorously fight to preserve it.

About Paul Rosenberg

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