Curry Stephenson Malott
Within capitalist societies, the United States in particular, there tends to exist a deeply entrenched culture of resistance that has developed since the radicalization of the working class during the Great Depression of 1929. The objective of the capitalist class is therefore to keep working class insurrection at the lowest possible level through the combined use of force and consent, placing special emphasis, for obvious reasons, on consent, that is, the control of ideas. It has been argued that the slight hesitation in the US Congress and Senate to pass the trillion dollar bailout “bill” for the bankers and the more recent one for the auto giants is a representation of the public’s overwhelming disapproval and the swelling “crisis in confidence”.
This crisis in confidence does not merely refer to the reluctance to spend money, as the corporate media would have us believe, but runs to the very core of capitalism as a viable economic system. US President George W. Bush alluded to this reading of the world in a special television appearance where he reassured his audience, the “small people,” that “democratic capitalism is the best system that ever existed.” Similarly, White House Press Secretary, Dana Perino, offered similar reassurance arguing that the United States is “the greatest capitalist country in the world” and that the public only needs to be willing to suffer for a short time so “we” can, once again, “enjoy prosperity.” Of course the bosses would never offer workers a choice in the matter, so we will suffer unless we fight back and challenge policies that treat the well-being of the public as incidental. That is, as long as the basic structures of power remain intact and wealth is flowing to the elite, the well being of the public is not a concern.
Making this argument, drawing on the insights of Adam Smith, Noam Chomsky (2007), summarizing what we can understand to be the ontological perspective of the profiteer or capitalist, notes that, “the ‘principle architects’ of state policy, ‘merchants and manufacturers,’ make sure that their own interests are ‘most particularly attended to,’ however ‘grievous’ the consequences for others” (pp. 41-42). Similarly, outlining the primary self-serving invention of the capitalist, the corporation, Joel Bakan (2004) observes that, “corporations have no capacity to value political systems, fascist or democratic, for reasons of principle or ideology. The only legitimate question for a corporation is whether a political system serves or impedes its self-interested purposes” (p. 88). Because safety and environmental regulations are a cost to production and thus encroach on margins, they are frequently violated as corporations sacrifice the public to satisfy their own self-interests.
We might therefore say that the mere existence of capitalism, its ruling classes in particular, represents the constant risk of an uprising, and the more powerful the bosses, the greater the inequality between the oppressors and the oppressed, and therefore the greater the probability of an uprising or frontal assault designed to seize control of state and private power. The bosses tend to have this awareness, and it is for this ruling-class class-consciousness that the hammer is always in the background. However, the elite are more interested in avoiding disruption because that kind of instability is not good for business. The ruling class perceive those who rely on a wage to survive as a constant potential threat because their existence as labor is structurally, by definition, set against their own creative human impulse.
As a pro-capitalist solution to the constant threat of working class resistance British economist John Maynard Keynes (1936/1997) developed the economic theory known as social democratic liberalism, which was harshly condemned during the 1950s and beyond by Milton Friedman and other neoliberals as socialist or collectivistand therefore misguided (Hill and Kumar, 2009; Hursh, 2008; Porfilio and Malott, 2008). Keynes advocated for a series of restrictions and taxation placed on accumulated wealth in order to “get rid” of the “objectionable characteristics of capital,” such as “instability” (p. 221). World renowned journalist and Keynesian supporter, Walter Lippmann (1937/2005), argued that taxing the rich was necessary in “relatively rich societies,” such as the United States, because “there is a strong tendency for the supply of capital to become so large that the rate of interest falls to a level where there is little inducement to invest it in new enterprise” (p. 229). In other words, when the profit gained from investing x amount of capital becomes so minimal that taking the economic risks that accompany speculative enterprise leads to dramatic reductions in investment and the resulting economic instability, government intervention becomes a necessity for the perpetuation of capitalism. When capitalists hoard capital, Lippmann (1937/2005) reasons, substantial sums of “wealth” are “withheld from use,” which slows down production, increases unemployment, and leads to “the extreme poverty of the marginal workers” (p. 229). Lippmann (1937/2005) concludes that “under these circumstances” it is necessary to use “taxing power” to “pump the surplus funds of the rich out of the ordinary capital market and into public investments” (p. 229).
Keynes (1936/1997) points to the “separation between ownership and management” and “the development of organized investment markets,” that is, the Stock Exchange system, as contributing to both increased investment, which, from a capitalist perspective, is positive, but also to “greatly” enhancing “the instability of the system” (pp. 150-151). For example, Keynes (1936/1997) observes that because the Stock Exchange is primarily designed to “facilitate transfers of old investments between one individual and another,” there is a propensity to “spend on a new project what may seem an extravagant sum, if it can be floated off on the Stock Exchange at an immediate profit” (p. 151). As a solution Keynes (1936/1997) suggests that capital should be made “less scarce” to “diminish” the “excess yield” or profit, which can be done “without its having become less productive – at least in the physical sense” (p. 213). This ability to stabilize markets through regulating “the competition of the rate of interest on money” led Keynes (1936/1997) to “sympathize” with the observation that all value “is produced by labor” (p. 213).
While the pro-capitalist liberals offer valuable insights for understanding the economic system of speculation, until the basic relationship between capital and labor and the process of value production are subverted, the majority of humanity will continue to live in a state of siege. However, there is reason to be hopeful. For example, there is currently widespread anticipation that the contemporary conservative era is coming to a close symbolized by the election of Barrack Obama to be the next President of the United States of America, and the country’s first African American president. Obama received sixty three million votes, or fifty two percent of those who voted, by appealing to a general sense of economic justice that is widespread throughout society and to the multicultural sensibilities of today’s youth with promises of real change, such as ending both the war in Iraq and the test-driven focus of NCLB and redistributing wealth more equally among the population by providing tax relief for working people while simultaneously increasing the taxation of the rich. Obama has also consistently pledged to pursue this path of peace, which is what people want, by promising to listen to not only other world leaders previously ignored and demonized by the US, such as President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, but the people of the United States, which we hope will prove to represent the beginning of the United States’ acknowledgment of democratic ideals in the contemporary era.
However, it is also true that Obama achieved what he achieved by distancing himself from affirmative action, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and aligning himself with the bankers, which were necessary moves to gain the support of capital and it’s media. It is important to note that much of the enthusiasm over an Obama presidency overlooks the simply fact that the position of U.S. President is not a kingship. While the power of the presidency has greatly increased during the Bush years, the framers of the Constitution nevertheless sought to ensure that the Commander in Chief was not too powerful indicated by Congress’ ability to veto the President’s vetoes. The President’s main functions are to validate the laws passed by Congress and to lead the armed forces. While the President can propose legislation, only the Congress can pass them, again, rendering the power of the executive branch limited. This brings us to a very serious issue.
That is, because much of the population is riding high on the hopes and aspirations of the presidency of the nation’s first Black President, there is great risk of even deeper cynicism and hopelessness that existed during the Bush years if those dreams are not realized by the Obama cabinet. The selection of Rahm Emanuel (and other neoliberals), who made millions as an investment banker, as Obama’s Chief of Staff is an indication ofmore of the same. Emanuel voted for NAFTA, welfare reform, and the PATRIOT ACT. However, these points, which indicate that Obama represents the interests of the ruling elite, are obvious and no surprise to most working people. That is, while many oppressed people, overcome with joy over the fist African American president-elect, are well aware that the grassroots struggle for justice must continue in earnest. At the same time, Noam Chomsky (2008) brings attention to the fact that during the past sixty years real income for working people has grown twice as fast under Democrats as compared to Republicans. In other words, while the election of Obama and the Democratic Party did not subvert the basic relationships of power, it most likely will lead to real benefits for those who rely on a wage to survive, and a more positive socio-political environment to engage in cross-racial class struggle and social justice work.
The challenge for critical pedagogues is therefore to connect with community organizations and not loose sight of what millions of Americans have themselves acknowledged what they have in common with each other, which the Obama victory has trumpeted for the world to hear – symbolically and actually. He demonstrated that over sixty three million American citizens are roughly of the same mind when it comes to democratic values such as freedom from economic oppression and embracing diversity. Obama was right in his acceptance speech that the victory is not his, but ours, because it is only an actively engaged citizenry that can create the lasting change that so many long for.
Curry Stephenson Malott is a Professor in the social and philosophical foundations of education at D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York. His recent works include A Call to Action: An Introduction to Education, Philosophy, and Native North America, NY: Peter Lang (2008) and (co-edited with B. Porfilio) The Destructive Path of Neoliberalism: An International Examination of Urban Education, The Netherlands: Sense (2008).
Bakan, J. (2004). The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. New York: Free Press.
Chomsky, N. (2007). What We Say Goes: Conversations On U.S. Power in a Changing World. Interviews with David Barsamian. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Hill, D. and R. Kumar. (2009). Neoliberalism and its Impacts. In Dave Hill and Ravi Kumar (Eds). Global Neoliberalism and Education and its Consequences. New York: Routledge.
Hursh, D. (2008). Neoliberalism. In David Gabbard (Ed). Knowledge & Power in the Global Economy: The Effects of School Reform in a Neoliberal/Neoconservative Age. Second Edition. New York: Lawrence Erlbaun Associates.
Keynes, J.M. (1936/1997). The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
Lippmann, W. (1937/2005). The Good Society. London: Transaction.
Porfilio, B. and C. Malott. (2008). Introduction: The Neoliberal Social Order. In Bradley Porfilio and Curry Malott (Eds). The Destructive Path of Neoliberalism: An International Examination of Urban Education. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense.