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The death agony of meritocracy

Jack Devine

Platypus Review 109 | September 2018

FORTY-FIVE MILLION AMERICANS collectively owe upward of $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. Yet there is no need to worry. The magic of the free market has a solution for all of your problems. On July 10, 2018, "Paid Off" premiered on TruTV, a new game show that offers contestants a chance to escape a lifetime of debt peonage. “We're capitalists. That's just the way it is.”

Less than 17 months after Nancy Pelosi’s Margaret Thatcher impersonation, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has shaken the foundation of the United States’ political class. Backed by small dollar donations and an army of canvassers, the self-described democratic socialist from the Bronx exposed the ghost in the New York Democratic Party machine. Her victory shattered the established consensus on what was possible in electoral politics. There is an alternative.

Ocasio-Cortez’s electoral victory did not emerge out of thin air, but as an outgrowth of the social movements for a radically democratic political revolution in the United States. Flickers of an anti-capitalist working class revolt emerged in the aftermath the 2008 financial crash. Occupy Wall Street, inspired by the Arab Spring and the Indignados movement in Spain, symbolized broad contempt for the masters of finance capital. The Chicago Teachers’ Strike in 2012 was an uprising against Rahm Emanuel’s regime of austerity for the poor and tax breaks for the profiteers. Across the United States workers organized together under the banner of Fight for 15 in a collective struggle for a living wage. Black Lives Matter was a declaration of worth by those hounded for generations by an authoritarian police state. The indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock refused to surrender quietly against fossil fuel capital and centuries of white settler colonialism. Bernie Sanders’ near upset in the 2016 Democratic Primary provided a new model for social democratic electoral campaigns while forcing an alternative vision for society into mainstream discourse. In the less than two years since that election concluded with a buffoonish reactionary huckster as the United States’ chief executive, the dues-paying membership of the Democratic Socialists of America has skyrocketed from 6,000 to 48,000. Ocasio-Cortez is merely the zenith thus far of democratic socialist organizers ascending to elected office through a grassroots campaign strategy of mass-based volunteer canvassing, phone bank operations, social media outreach, and a widespread online fundraising network. Earlier this year four socialist women won their primaries in Pennsylvania for the state house assembly. Last November Lee Carter defeated the now-former GOP whip in an election for the Virginia House of Delegates. While electoral politics in and of itself is insufficient to supplant the entrenched power of the capitalist ruling class, these developments reflect the increasing popularity of collective action as the solution to our exponentially growing societal rot.

Despite pronouncements of an economic recovery, the crisis of neoliberal capitalism has only further intensified since the failure to make structural adjustments in the aftermath of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis. As non-financial corporations and governments joined Wall Street and households in an orgy of fictitious capital accumulation, cumulative global debt soared to a record $233 trillion by the end of 2017, 318 percent higher than global GDP.[1] An unsustainable debt-to-production ratio that far surpasses the asset bubble that burst during the 2008 financial crash.[2] In order to maintain their historically high rate of profit in spite of decades of stagnant growth in the imperial core, capitalists have redoubled their commitment to asset inflation over productive investment. While the stock market and the exchange-value of private property ascend to unprecedented heights, the conditions of the laborers primarily responsible for the transformation of raw materials into useful goods and services have continually deteriorated in the imperial core. Real wages in the United States remain stagnant. The costs of healthcare, education, and housing have risen dramatically. Productivity and GDP growth drags at a paltry rate when compared to the supposed golden age of Keynesian social democracy. Life expectancy in the United States, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, has begun to decline. Rising rates of suicide and drug addiction are the consequence of a working class riddled with never-ending anxiety. Nearly half of all Americans would struggle to find $400 for an emergency expense. Twenty-seven percent skip medical treatments because they cannot afford them.[3]

In reality the illusory recovery has only served to temporarily entrench the international dictatorship of big finance capital and its tyranny of exchange-value. Billionaires now have the capacity to end extreme poverty with a mere fraction of their wealth, but choose to hoard it in the nihilistic competition for the world’s pre-eminent exploiter. Their regime of artificial scarcity is enforced by an expanding global police state built upon the toxic fusion of the United States’ military-prison-industrial complex. American arms manufacturers’ profits soar as their weapons of mass disruption circle the globe, while millions of impoverished Americans are encircled by jail cells for the crime of being poor. Workers and peasants in Central America fleeing the mass violence of counter-revolutionary death squads originally trained and funded by American imperialists are denounced by the United States President as savage animals. The refugee crisis is only becoming exacerbated as the devastating effects of climate change punish those least responsible for altering the atmospheric balance necessary for the maintenance of human civilization. Amidst this rising tide of barbarism there is no time to despair. The inherent contradictions within the current iteration of the capitalist mode of production are propelling a mass movement for socialist liberation. As the ruling class gleefully marches the rest of humanity towards the second great cataclysm of capitalism, the fundamental questions for historical materialists remain the same. How did we get here? What is to be done in order to transcend bourgeois madness?

In his 1982 State of the Union address to Congress, President Ronald Reagan promised an end to government policies that were "taking power away from the hands of the people in their States and local communities." Electorally, the conservative movement he represented found mass appeal among the unprecedentedly populous mass base of petty-bourgeois property owners in the sprawling suburbs of the United States. The primary economic beneficiaries of the private-public partnership that formed the expansive post-war imperial bureaucracy were whipped into a social Darwinian froth against the tepid social democratic policies that had enabled their rise into the middle class in the first place. Historically anomalous social mobility coupled with decades of relentless anticommunist propaganda produced a generation entranced by an abstract individualist vision of the world. The post-war cultural revolution of their formative years that partially upended reactionary patriarchal structures paradoxically provided the conservative movement with the language to craft a potent counter-revolutionary narrative. The newly hegemonic culture of the self “found political expression in the British premier Margaret Thatcher’s: ‘There is no society, only individuals.’” Simultaneously, the American bourgeoisie unleashed a vicious campaign against those who had recently liberated themselves from legalized apartheid through collective struggle. Black Americans were the first afflicted by the automation and outsourcing of Fordist commodity production. The deindustrialization of the imperial core that accompanied the collapse of the Keynesian golden age of capitalism facilitated the rise of a social class of “those who became permanently welfare dependent” who “were both resented and despised by those who thought themselves as earning a living by work.”[4] The coalescence of these historical forces enabled reactionaries “to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses. A new old regime, one could say, which brings the energy and dynamism of the street to the antique inequalities of a dilapidated estate.”[5]

Their ascendance to the highest levers of state power in the world’s most powerful empire represented the crystallization of the neoliberal global hegemony. The free market theologians preached that the magic of unfettered capitalism was the only manner to ensure freedom and prosperity. Fear-mongering ideologues warned that the collectivization of an expanding social democratic state apparatus represented the “road to serfdom.” Only by unleashing the restrained forces of the market could the descent into authoritarianism be avoided. The absurdity of their claim was obvious for anyone with knowledge of Milton Friedman’s role advising Pinochet’s murderous counter-revolutionary terror against Chilean democratic socialism. What reactionaries actually mean when they declare their commitment to liberty is the freedom of the few to dominate the many by any means necessary. Despite their endlessly repeated meaningless platitudes about the individual, the foundational aim of counter-revolutionaries was, and always has been since the French Revolution, the re-entrenchment of ruling class power over the social movements that threatened their hierarchical domination. Their theory in practice meant wealth redistribution to the propertied classes and violent retribution against those who challenged them.

Reagan did not waste any time in striking a decisive blow against organized labor. In 1981 his administration broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization’s strike by firing 11,000 workers. Union membership rate in the United States declined from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 11.1 percent in 2015.[6] Increased disorganization accompanied a decline in militancy. Correspondingly, real wages have remained stagnant ever since. Workers’ most significant weapon against capital, the capacity to collectively withhold their labor, had practically disappeared from American life until the most recent upsurge. There was an annual average of 303 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers during the era of post-war social democracy. After three decades of precipitous decline the number of mass strikes had stabilized at fourteen per year between 2010 and 2017.[7] The neoliberal counter-revolutionaries simultaneously unleashed a social Darwinian crusade against the growing underclass. Their demonization campaign targeting “welfare queens” served the dual purpose of cutting social services and therefore taxes on the rich, while implicitly signaling to white supremacists that conservative elites shared their electoral bases’ contempt for black people. Impoverished Americans were denounced as morally inferior beings who had nobody to blame but themselves. The war on drugs and the subsequent rise of mass incarceration was an even more vicious extension of their social Darwinian logic. Not only were the poor responsible for their own misery, but many were dangerous savages whom the state needed to isolate in maximum security facilities for the safety of civil society. In “Are Prisons Obsolete?,” Angela Davis describes how their lives were deemed unvaluable in a neoliberal marketplace “driven by an unprecedented pursuit of profit, no matter the human cost.” The American bourgeoisie’s “massive prison-building project that began in the 1980s created the means of concentrating and managing what the capitalist system had implicitly declared to be human surplus.” By 2016 this supposedly expendable population had expanded to 6,613,500 individuals.[8]

Violent retribution against perceived threats to the American ruling class extended well beyond the nation’s borders. While securing free access to cheap labor markets outside the industrial core was always an element of capitalist imperialism, it was the fundamental basis for commodity production in the neoliberal project. In the decades following the Second World War the commercialization of agriculture produced one of the most revolutionary changes in social relations in human history. Hundreds of millions of farmers across the Global South were forced off their land into exponentially expanding metropolises. The global peasantry was rapidly proletarianized. While this presented capitalists with lucrative opportunities for an increased rate of exploitation, it also led to undesired political consequences. Throughout the 1980s social revolutionaries in Central America challenged the local rule of the American-backed landed aristocracy. United States imperialism was already a long-established tradition in the region. In the 1980s the upper echelons of the Pentagon and intelligence services retooled the anticommunist crusade for a new struggle. Paramilitaries, death squads, and army units trained by the American imperial bureaucracy unleashed a violent terror across El Salvador during a 12-year civil war which killed more than 75,000 people.[9] The proliferation of arms and organized violent gangs destabilized the region. As a result the flow of undocumented immigrants from Central America to the United States surged in the 1990s.[10] Refugees continue to flee the indiscriminate violence of the drug cartels, whose leadership emerged from the demobilized death squads trained and funded by the United States.

The premeditated massacres of the labor and black freedom movements in the United States as well as the decapitation of revolutions for socialist liberation in the Global South were essential preconditions for consolidating the power of global financial capital. In 1982 the Reagan administration legalized stock buybacks. A mechanism that enables publicly-traded corporations to reinvest their profits back into their own stock to artificially inflate their value, as opposed to investment in productivity-increasing expenditures such as labor and technological development. In the aftermath of the 2017 Republican tax cuts, as real wages for the vast majority of Americans have remained stagnant, public companies announced a record of more than $600 billion in buybacks in the first half of this year alone.[11] The legalization of stock buybacks was merely the tip of the spear of a bipartisan project to deregulate financial instruments through which property owners could parasitically extract more surplus value in passive income schemes. The apostles of Milton Friedman preached that eliminating the restrictions placed on corporations would spur an innovative, competitive marketplace. That notion proved to be utter fiction. Corporate consolidation is now a prominent feature of the global economy.[12] Decades of capital concentration have crushed the entrepreneurial spirit supposedly unleashed by unfettered capitalism. The number of startups and their impact on overall employment has declined since the early 1980s.[13] While the conservative movement achieved their primary objective of redistributing wealth and power upwards towards to the bourgeoisie, the narrative that justified their goals has been exposed as a sham. The wolf in sheep’s clothing has been laid bare.

The material conditions of young adults in the United States have dramatically deteriorated since 1977. In contrast to previous generations, about half of 30- and 40-year-olds are earning less than their parents earned at the same age. Social mobility in the United States has fallen by more than 70 percent in the past half-century.[14] Homeownership rates have declined from 48 percent to 39 percent. 43 percent of Americans are now renters, the largest share in at least 50 years. Nearly half of those households pay more than 30 percent of their income in rent, while a quarter pay more than half their income. Both figures have more than doubled since 1960.[15] While median wages have remained the same, the cost of a college education has increased by 150 percent. Correspondingly, young adults’ median debt has risen by more than 221 percent.[16] While more Millennials acquired a college degree than any generation before, instead of reaping the promised rewards they have been punished with debt peonage. The neoliberal myth that skills training enhances job opportunities proved to be yet another free-market fantasy. There is only an American Dream for those lucky enough to be born into the land of luxury, while the vast majority of the population suffocates under the nightmarish weight of ceaseless exploitation and overwhelming anxiety. As of August 2017, 78 percent of full-time workers in the United States reported that they live paycheck to paycheck.[17] The Millennials’ rejection of the status quo and their search for a superior alternative does not arise out of bleeding heart idealism, but rather from the failure of capitalism to provide them with a stable future.

The contradictions between the ideological narrative propagated by neoliberalism and the material reality it produces cannot hold. Structural inequality ripples through every facet of the socioeconomic order; a two-tiered system of injustice that exposes the lie at the heart of liberal capitalism. Plutocrats continuously fail without facing serious consequences, while misfortune dooms the working class to a life of endless despair. When reckless financial executives unleashed the subprime mortgage crisis they continued to reap in multi-million dollar bonuses,[18] while bankrupted working class homeowners were punished with millions of foreclosures.[19] Social Darwinian capitalism rhetorically ridicules state intervention into the political economy, but in actuality relies upon the violent suppression of the most vulnerable elements of society in order to maintain its oppressive hierarchies.[20] Neoliberal ideology is based upon a negative perception of freedom in which corporate overlords are free to exploit without democratic interference, while workers are forced into a labor market where the punishments for lacking the adequate skills to serve the masters of capital are poverty, imprisonment, and death. Despite its self-proclaimed reputation as the leader of the free world, the United States incarcerates far more citizens into its widespread system of gulags than any other government, including the far more populous authoritarian state-capitalist People’s Republic of China.[21] Militarized American state officials extra-judicially execute more of their own people than any developed nation on earth.[22] The rhetorical commitment to individual freedom is a facade to conceal neoliberalism’s fundamentally anti-democratic faith in the inherent superiority of capitalists.

It takes an embarrassing level of cognitive dissonance to still believe in the moral supremacy of the plutocrats. Their already absurdly self-serving rationale has become even more laughable in the age of Trump. His presidency is the inevitable conclusion of a society poisoned by a social Darwinian mentality, while his blatant failings fully expose the fallacy of its ideological premise. Any society in which such an ignorant oaf can accumulate so much wealth and power could not possibly have any hierarchy formulated upon aptitude and diligence. Leon Trotsky’s description of the Russian autocracy in 1917 feels equally apt in 2018. “The privileged classes are now changed from organizers of national life into a parasitic growth; having lost their guiding function, they lose the consciousness of their mission and all confidence in their powers.”[23] Trump and his ghoulish enablers demonstrably prove that the meritocracy is a pernicious lie. The scum rises to the top. For far too long this most odious conspiracy has been hidden in plain sight. The impunity of the bourgeoisie is not a bug that can be squashed with minor reforms, but only through the collective struggle of the international working class. Capital has yet again dug its own grave, but is the proletariat prepared to bury the bourgeoisie permanently in the annals of history?

For decades, the Left in the United States has been divided into a non-profit industrial complex and bureaucratized unions committed to defending the Democratic Party in order to survive off its crumbs, alongside sectarian leftist groups preaching their intellectual superiority while doing very little to materially improve people’s lives. This is not entirely the fault of American socialists, as the unprecedented rise in home ownership in the post-war era created the ideal base for political reaction. Yet when this facade collapsed in 2008 the radical left was thoroughly unprepared. It was overly fixated on perpetually having the right answers in 1923 rather than a historical materialist analysis geared towards building a mass movement for socialism now. What the successful electoral campaign of Ocasio-Cortez and others backed by the Democratic Socialists of America most significantly demonstrate is the emergence of a socialist left capable of projecting power in the United States. The social forces that led to Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory highlight the potential of a new multi-racial working-class coalition. Her district, in the heart of the most diverse area in the world, is a melting pot of populations battered down by the exploitation of neoliberal capitalism: downwardly mobile professional-class Millennials, black Americans facing an onslaught of gentrification and mass incarceration, as well as immigrants fleeing the violence imposed by U.S. imperialism. The hegemonic ideological narrative has not led to the expected destination and they are ready to write a new story.

Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign’s injection of socialism into mainstream discourse proves why democratic elections are an absolutely essential front of class struggle. Yet politicians can never bring about socialist liberation. What is necessary to truly challenge capital is to construct radically democratic counter-hegemonic institutions that are not only capable of momentarily paralyzing capital in order to seize power, but to utterly crush the ruling class when they inevitably strike back. We are clearly nowhere close to being prepared to do so. Yet there are signs of hope of an emerging class struggle. Young people are driving an increase in unionization as the professional classes become proletarianized. Media workers and academics are meeting their growing precarity with increased organization. Laborers in social reproduction are becoming militant in the face of a decade of austerity. A wave of mass teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Jersey City, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina as well as strikes by nurses in California and Vermont have proven that labor is still a force to be reckoned with. In July, Amazon warehouse workers throughout Europe went on strike against the international conglomerates’ increasingly high rate of exploitation. The #MeToo movement revealed how women all across the world are ready to organize and fight back against their predatory bosses. Millions of Spaniards withheld their socially-reproductive labor on International Women’s Day while Indian women hit the streets to reject their status as second-class citizens. Worker cooperatives are proliferating, from Rojava in Northern Syria to Jackson, Mississippi. Activists in Pittsburgh and Sacramento shut down their cities to demand justice for yet another murder of an unarmed young black man by the police. Occupy Ice is directly confronting the deportation apparatus. Anti-fascists are battling white supremacists in the streets. Prisoners across the United States will begin a series of strikes on August 21st. Socialist organizers must meet people where they are struggling against the ruling class and facilitate the energies of rising masses towards social revolution. Will the flexible and localized structure of the Democratic Socialists of America provide a conduit for building lasting institutions of radically democratic working-class power? It is impossible to know anything other than that we have so much work to do in such little time. The spectre of climate change presents humanity with a binary choice: socialism or barbarism. We have a world to win. |P

[1] Joe Ciolli, “The World is Swimming in a Record $233 Trillion of Debt,” Business Insider, <https://www.businessinsider.com/global-debt-his-record-233-trillion-debt-to-gdp-falling-2018-1>.

[2] Ann Pettifor, The Production of Money, (London: Verso, 2018).

[3] Ben Steverman, “America’s Millennials Are Waking Up to a Grim Financial Future,” Bloomberg, <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-21/america-s-millennials-are-waking-up-to-a-grim-financial-future>.

[4] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, (New York: Vintage, 1994).

[5] Corey Robins, The Reactionary Mind, (Oxford University Press, 2017).

[6] Megan Dunn and James Walker, “Union Membership in the United States,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, <https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2016/union-membership-in-the-united-states/home.htm>.

[7] Doug Henwood, “The Disappearing Strike,” Jacobin, <https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/02/strike-decline-2017-bureau-labor-statistics>.

[8] “Trends in U.S. Corrections,” The Sentencing Project, <http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/trends-in-u-s-corrections/

[9] Raymond Bonner, “Time for a U.S. Apology to El Salvador,” The Nation, <https://www.thenation.com/article/time-for-a-us-apology-to-el-salvador/>.

[10] “Estimated Unauthorized Immigrant Population in the U.S. Lower in 2015 than in 2009,” Pew Research Center, <http://www.pewhispanic.org/2017/05/03/facts-on-u-s-immigrants/ph_stat-portraits_foreign-born-2015_key-charts_unauthorized-pop/>.

[11] Patrick Temple-West, “‘Eye-popping’ Payouts for CEOs Follow Trump’s Tax Cuts,” Politico, <https://www.politico.com/story/2018/07/30/eye-popping-payouts-for-ceos-follow-trumps-tax-cuts-747649>.

[12] “Corporate Concentration,” The Economist, <https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2016/03/24/corporate-concentration>.

[13] John Haltiwanger, et al., “Where Have All the Young Firms Gone?” U.S. Census Bureau’s Business Dynamics Statistics, <https://www.census.gov/ces/pdf/BDS_StatBrief6_Young_Firms.pdf>.

[14] Lauren Leatherby, “US Social Mobility Gap Continues to Widen,” Financial Times, <https://www.ft.com/content/7de9165e-c3d2-11e6-9bca-2b93a6856354>.

[15] Ryan Cooper, “How Social Housing Can Save the American City,” The Week, <https://theweek.com/articles/786944/how-social-housing-save-american-city>.

[16] Stef Kight, “Being 30 Then and Now,” Axios, <https://www.axios.com/one-big-thing-being-30-then-and-now-1531229570-b03dd961-0c1e-4734-a577-78c28ae346d9.html>.

[17] Jessica Dickler, “Most Americans Live Paycheck to Paycheck,” CNBC, <https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/24/most-americans-live-paycheck-to-paycheck.html>.

[18] Stephen Bernard, “Bailed-out Banks Gave Millions in Exec Bonuses, NY AG Report Shows,” ABC, <https://abcnews.go.com/Business/story?id=8214818&page=1>.

[19] David Dayen, “Obama Failes to Mitigate America’s Foreclosure Crisis,” The Atlantic, <https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/obamas-failure-to-mitigate-americas-foreclosure-crisis/510485/>.

[20] Bernadette Rabuy, “Prisons of Poverty,” Prison Policy Initiative, <https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html>.

[21] Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “Yes, U.S. Locks People Up at a Higher Rate Than any Other Country,” The Washington Post, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/07/yes-u-s-locks-people-up-at-a-higher-rate-than-any-other-country>.

[22] Jamiles Lartey, “By the Numbers: U.S. Police Kill More in Days than other Countries do in Years,” The Guardian, <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/09/the-counted-police-killings-us-vs-other-countries>.

[23] Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch06.htm>.

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