I am glad to be back from cataract surgery and am extremely grateful to Al Brilliant and Nate Roberto for their superlative contributions to “This Week in Black and White.” Al is my great friend who lives and works a few doors down from THE PROJECT and a daily source of information, analysis, and wisdom that flows from his rich and still flourishing life. Nate, my only son and hero, is a brilliant young artist whose beautifully written column last week reveals a young man of exceptional character and consciousness. Both are worthy comrades of twenty-first century revolution.
So drawing from what they wrote and what I have tried to do while sidelined, I offer a few observations and commentary far too sweeping yet credible. My return to reading and reporting, research and writing, has been quite difficult due to blurred vision in post-op recovery, as well as lasting fatigue from having to close down THE PROJECT in its present location and move everything back home. It is a small loss given the catastrophic toll COVID-19 and economic collapse has taken on many, many millions of people. I’ll have more to share about my failed mission on Grove Street as well as an update on conditions in Greensboro next week. After several protests and destruction of property downtown, the city is in its third night of curfew as I write.
For now, I can only indicate what I think are salient features of this deepening, and irreversible, structural crisis and the evil of white supremacy it has brought to a head. Both are now pulling apart what remains of Pax Americana, or Pox Americana, as Al put it two weeks ago in his guest column (“Sorry Empire”).
First and foremost we have entered the first phase of The Second Great Depression. The combination of sudden and massive unemployment and pervasive economic dislocation and political rupture due to the impact of COVID-19 accelerated the downward spiral of labor already plagued by chronic underemployment and historically low wages. Covid-19 has proved to be the tipping point my former colleague and co-author Gregory Myerson always said was required to bring converging crises to a head. He was right. The current conjuncture of crisis points – economic, political, social, cultural and environmental – has made living conditions in 2020 comparable historically to those in 1932, the worst year of The First Great Depression.
That said, this depression differs from its predecessor. Consider it as an inversion from the standpoint of capital vs. labor. As I explain in the opening chapters of The Coming of The American Behemoth, the seeds of the Great Depression of the 1930s were sown during the so-called Great Boom of the prosperous 1920s. The United States had emerged as the epicenter of the world capitalist economy as a consequence of its pivotal role in World War I and rose quickly and dramatically to become the world’s leading industrial power and, more importantly, its banker. Simply put, the U.S. became the first global hegemon in history. Domestic economic growth between 1922 and 1929 was unparalleled. Spectacular technological advances fueled production that delivered a seemingly infinite number of commodities to create a spectacle promising a better life for all Americans. However, the majority of the nation’s 120 million people could not afford them even when enticed into credit schemes that enabled a rising middle class to live above its means. Despite prosperity and the ballyhoo of its propagandists, mass deprivation was actually rising in relation to what the market delivered. Here we discover the paradox of capitalist progress in American capitalism, growing poverty in an ever-expanding sea of plenty.
It is in this contradiction and paradox that we find the seeds of the bust in the boom and the onset of what in my book I call the genesis of fascist processes because they aim at the total control of capital over society, its institutions and consciousness. To maintain profits America bankers and industrialists who ran the State and Commerce departments as virtual business clearinghouses aimed U.S. foreign policy where it was most likely to produce profits. In Europe, Mussolini and fascist Italy became our most reliable economic and political partner until the mid-1930s when Il Duce invaded Ethiopia and incurred the wrath of those who stood for democracy but always against the backdrop of their own national brands of imperialism and white supremacy. The decade of the 1920s was also a time when U.S. businessmen ran the economies and governments of Central America and the Caribbean as they did their own companies.
At the same time, the need to sustain profitability in the domestic economy required greater speculation in the stock market, marking a qualitative advance of an unproductive capitalist economy. When it finally came to light in November of 1929 that the value of stocks was reduced to worthless scraps of paper, the stock market crashed and unemployment rose steadily for the next three years until Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed the presidency on March 4, 1933, and moved immediately to pull us from the brink of total collapse in the First-Hundred Days of his administration that resulted in momentous legislation which became the basis of the New Deal.
Here is my point. In the case of the First Great Depression (1929-1939), the stock market crashed and was followed by the steady collapse of labor leading to massive unemployment in 1932. By comparison, the Second Great Depression is the result of several booms and busts since the general decline of the American Empire set in by the mid-1970s. Explaining this in detail requires a column in itself, which I seriously doubt you would read. Instead, I serve up this tidbit and hope you will take it up for your own edification. This depression is the result of a protracted and unique crisis of the American Empire in decay and decline. The constant pursuit of profit at exponential levels led to the steady erosion of the productive economy, the power of labor, and the vitality of nature itself. Look around and what do we see? Consider that more than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last eight weeks. Then look at the DOW and behold its spectacular growth in the midst of a great, great depression in the making.
An economy in shambles except for those who own it! Meanwhile, chaos grows daily as a result of a virus for which there is no vaccine while the bosses keep telling workers that they have no choice but to return to work. Before COVID-19, we could ask, “prosperity for whom” and answer immediately. Now it is more problematic knowing you could get sick and maybe die by going back to work. All capitalist apologists are preaching the necessary return to “normalcy” as though a collapsed economy and mass anger and protests now directed at institutionalized racism can somehow be overcome by wishful thinking.
Let me be clear. This depression will only deepen given the lack of a bold and robust economic recovery that, assuming Joe Biden is elected, goes far beyond the New Deal. But even if Biden went into a phone booth and emerged as Bernie Sanders, would this be possible now, just as it was for President Franklin Roosevelt, who finally embraced the principle of permanent state intervention into the private economy – Keynesianism as we know it – in 1938? Then, the United States was the world’s banker and leading creditor nation. Today, it stands unique in contemporary world history as an unprecedented debtor empire. American capitalism cannot be saved as it once was only if it continues along the current path toward fascism as those who control the State assure capitalist elites that the rule of finance capital will be preserved at all costs. Fascism is the result of failed monopoly-finance capitalism and its only endgame.
Before the election five months from now, we could see something Trump & Co. had seemed bent on before COVID-19; that is, a fascist rebuilding of infrastructure across the nation that would deliver even greater profits to leading corporations and major financial institutions. This is the dance Trump & Co. does with Wall Street, and up to this point the two have been more than willing to tango. Now that the reserve army of labor has grown, a fascist “recovery” would proceed from the corpse of American labor power at the cheapest price. Marx’s axiom that under capitalism “time is everything, man is nothing” would take the shape of some of the currently unemployed hired by private companies to work on public works projects for wages far below purchasing power needed to sustain them at an acceptable standard of living; in other words, just enough to purchase whatever is being produced, amounting to a novel type of the minimum wage. Such powers vested in private-public partnership only advance the domination of monopoly-finance capital over the majority pf Americans. This move also would be comparable in world-historic terms to what Hitler and Nazi leadership did to win over the hearts and minds of German bankers, industrialists, the great Junker landowners whose members also filled the elite German Military Command and, of course, much of the middle class in 1934-1935. It could even get Trump re-elected! It also is worth considering that the initial Nazi recovery could not sustain profitability of a productive domestic economy. Consequently, it turned to its own version of unproductiveness and waste, the creation of a wartime economy aimed at conquest and world domination.
In the midst of this dizzying crisis and depression in the making is the necessity to recognize Trump as an American fascist demagogue whose obsession to rule dictatorially is buttressed by loyal henchmen and the still daunting Republican Party machinery at all levels of government, especially in the South and the Midwest, the latter supported by powerful strongholds of local capital that ultimately depend on Wall Street and the dictates of finance capital. I agree with Cornell West when he tells Anderson Cooper on CNN that Trump and his circle of mobsters are fascist gangsters. Yet we must go beyond fingering Trump as we constantly do and recover a working definition of fascism established in this country during the 1930s and early 1940s: fascism as the rule of Big Business and Big Capital in the guise of democracy and liberty or, more simply put, fascism as the rule of finance capital itself. We must recognize President Donald J. Trump as the face of American fascism. Trump is surely a monster. But American fascism is more than Trump. It is the American Behemoth now fully grown in the form of a beastly and putrefying capitalist system and a dying empire. Nate’s drawing at the top of his essay, “The Boss Pushes Us Ahead,” is a true rendering of American fascism in its totality.
We should consider COVID-19 as both a catalyst and tipping point to a crisis that marked an even more rapid intensification of capitalist contradictions and fascist processes. COVID-19 has laid bare the crisis of neoliberalism and with it an eye toward recognizing how fascism is the endgame of monopoly-finance capitalism in utter decline and decay. What I have described on many occasions as the paradox of capitalist progress – growing poverty and deprivation within an ever expanding sea of plenty, a seminal and integral feature of capitalist growth in the epoch of monopoly-finance capitalism and imperialism – is now fully revealed for all who care to see it. Pandemic and protest enable us to penetrate appearances and reveal the essence of a dysfunctional and dystopian system. Look around and ask yourself how all this applies to your life and what you hope and intend to do about it. It is as an old song from my youth I often heard adults sing in a mocking tone, “It’s Now or Never.”
This leads to my last observation. We are indeed living in a moment of transition toward greater progress or deadlier barbarism. Will it be the complete fascist reordering under Trump & Co.? Or will we move consciously toward the fulfilment of social democracy in the short-term and within it the possibility of a democratic eco-socialist society required for the health of humanity and nature? Will it be fascism or socialism? Will we recognize that quantitative change has led us to an absolute rupture of everything we considered normal and presumed to be eternal? Will we drive ourselves steadily to death and dystopia or make a conscious effort to realize life on Earth for the wondrous promise it still holds?
Out of the chaos caused by disease and economic collapse now comes a nascent moral crusade and its only shining feature, a mass movement based on decency, respect and equity. This is a powerful force opposed to the rising tide of fascism and the racist brutalities of white supremacists from Washington to Piney Grove. In the South, this is bringing semi-organized racial conflict to the fore. The protests are astounding in their magnitude and meaning. But from them must emerge a movement that in its coalescence ensures the defeat of the fascist Trump & Co. in November while going beyond whatever the Democratic Party under Biden promises if elected. The birth of this movement has already occurred in the protests spawned by George Floyd’s murder by four members of the Minneapolis Police Department. It is not a question of whether the infant will live but whether it can grow into a healthy, vital child or a demon of the first magnitude.
We must find ourselves and others around us as we grope in the darkness brought upon us by a faction of 320 million Americans who own the system of production and exchange and are hell bent on preserving it at all costs.
So I ask, “prosperity for whom?” Will it be progress or barbarism, fascism or socialism?
There is no third way.
“The Boss Pushes Us Ahead” by Nate Roberto