Sunday, September 28, 2008

In lieu of a New Deal, a raw one

Congress and the various branches of US industry have jerry-rigged a formal response to the ongoing crisis of capitalism, with fingers crossed that it might steer the country back to business as usual.

Plenty will be said about this in the near future, with no shortage of in-depth consideration of every last detail, which, after all, is the job of the major media vis-a-vis the privileged constituencies which advertisers hope to ensnare. This is a crisis that affects the people and organizations that manage the economy of the country, so it's going to be headline news forever until it either subsides as a problem or is transcended in importance by some other concern. In this respect, it is quite different from something like, say, poverty, which is merely a crisis of the poor, and therefore an accepted reality, barely noted. Financial disasters, like most disasters, may hit the poor the hardest, but that is not the motivating impulse behind this intervention.

There is some talk among liberals that the current financial crisis coupled with an Obama win may lead to a New Deal-style resurgence of public policy geared towards public need. Unfortunately, this misses what the public was doing at the time of the Great Depression to force an otherwise business-loyal government to recognize basic public concerns: many were trying to overthrow the economic system altogether. There was widespread socialist mobilization, including a socialist party based in the American union movement; and they were organized enough to articulate an alternative vision of how the country could be run, many components of which were incorporated into the New Deal and in turn precipitated the greatest expansion of the middle-class in American history.

Where is that today? Contrary to liberal aspirations, change does not come from one good man (or woman) pulling the levers of state power. It comes by diffusing power sufficiently so that it extends into the lives of those affected by it. That means people have to prepare themselves to act on the issues that matter to them, firstly by educating each other on what they are, and secondly by having some practical method for addressing them. This is what was happening on a large scale in the 1920's and 30's which led to significant economic gains for "the rest of us" in the decades to follow, but which doesn't seem apparent today. If so, it is nobody's fault but our own.

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