December 16, 2012 · 5 Comments
By Costas Panayotakis:
In a column entitled “The G.O.P.’s Existential Crisis,” Paul Krugman claims that the Republican Party’s long-standing effort to eliminate “the welfare state – that is, the whole legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society” has now failed because “Democrats didn’t go along with the program, and refused to give up.” (i) Faced with this failure, Krugman argues, the Republicans have no concrete proposals to offer and, “increasingly under the influence of radical ideologues,” are threatening to make America ungovernable.
This very simplistic narrative presents the radical changes in the American political landscape over the last thirty years as a move of the Republicans to the right even as the Democrats have stayed true to the liberal legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society. In Krugman’s mind, the Republicans have marginalized themselves by moving to the right, thus leaving the Democrats in a politically hegemonic position.
A monument of Democratic wishful thinking, Krugman’s column obscures the fact that, far from having failed, the Republicans have over the last thirty years successfully shifted the entire political spectrum to the right. As for the Democrats, far from having stayed true to the liberal legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, they too have moved to the right as they have helped bring about and adjusted to the new free-market neoliberal regime of economic and social policy that is currently in crisis.
Not unique to the United States, this new regime represents a break with the model of the Keynesian welfare state which prevailed in capitalism’s post-war ‘golden age’ and which, in the U.S., was exemplified by the policy initiatives of the New Deal and the Great Society. Thus, long before threatening to make America ‘ungovernable,’ Republican ideologues helped to bring about a new way of governing America. This new way has drastically increased inequality and has contributed to the onset of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. And although Republicans may sometimes overreach when it comes to the implementation of the neoliberal program, they have been successful in making even those they denounce as liberals and socialists (such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) dutifully serve the neoliberal project. Similarly, the fact that Margaret Thatcher overreached in her neoliberal restructuring of British society did not change the fact that she so changed the dominant policy paradigm in her country that when, a few years after her political demise, Labor got back in power, its policies were solidly neoliberal (as have been the policies of the Conservative/Liberal coalition that has, by now, assumed power in Britain).
In this sense, any temporary electoral setbacks that Republicans may suffer as a result of overreaching pales in comparison to the robust structural change represented by the fact that the Democratic politicians who have in recent years outmaneuvered them have stayed within the neoliberal fold. There is no better example of the ideological victory of right-wing Republicans than the fact that the most ‘liberal’ policies today’s Democrats would dare propose (for example, Obamacare) are corporate-friendly policies embraced until not so long ago by Republicans themselves. And what about the fact that even Obama’s (wavering) opposition to the renewal of the Bush tax cuts for the super-rich would still leave their tax rates much lower than they were under Republican presidents such as Eisenhower and Nixon?
Krugman’s regular debunking of Republican non-sense is useful and welcome. But even more fundamental than the political football between Republicans and Democrats, which dominates the attention of The New York Times and the media, are the deeper structural changes that global capitalism has undergone in the last thirty years. And what these structural changes have made clear is that the belief of liberal Keynesians, like Krugman, in the possibility of humanizing capitalism has to be qualified by the experience of the twentieth century. This experience suggests that, as long as the capitalist power structure remains intact, any progressive social and economic changes will remain precarious and be reversed whenever capitalist elites feel strong enough to do away with any concessions that popular movements may have in the past forced them to grant. It is for this reason that the enemy of humanity and the planet are not Republicans and their political counterparts in other parts of the world but capitalism itself. It is this basic insight that the ‘good cop, bad cop’ game played by Democrats and Republicans alike serves to obscure. Just as support for the Democrats did not prevent the current crisis but helped to bring it about, so will continued support for the Democrats not ensure a truly better future for ourselves, our children and the planet.
Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at the New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press).
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