The Year of Talking Radically

"People who should have been indicted got honorary degrees" - Kevin Phillips on the political climate of the 1980s.

CAPITALISM has been coming in for some scarifying criticism lately. Since the first of the year National Public Radio has broadcast a thoughtful series on the causes and human costs of corporate downsizing. The New York Times has run a seven-part series on America under the big knife of downsizing. Newsweek, on its cover, has called executives who specialize in layoffs "Corporate Killers." Calling the stock market "un-American," Pat Buchanan has injected the issue of "corporate butchers," disposable workers, and the downsized American dream into Republican politics. Picking up on the ideas of Labor Secretary Robert Reich, congressional Democrats have introduced legislation to give tax breaks to companies that treat their employees decently. On college campuses, meanwhile, students are signing up to be union organizers. The new president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, promises to make downsizing an issue in collective bargaining and to expand the union's organizing work, reaching out to janitors, hospital attendants, and "pink-collar" workers, mostly women, who are employed in the service industries of the information economy. An effort is even being made to organize southern poultry workers, off whose limb-threatening labor we grow thin.

"Economic insecurity," "Wall Street greed," "throw-away workers"--the air is full of the language of radicalism. In the 1890s, as many commentators have noted, mass movements of Americans used these very words about "the money power." A century ago the local economies of small-town America were being overridden by the irresistible imperatives of the first truly national economy. Agricultural America was dying; industrial America was being born.

radical picture The radicalism of the 1890s failed; the full protections demanded by Populists and, later, Progressives against the community-destroying effects of the nationalized corporate-driven economy would not come for decades. Some, notably universal health insurance, have not yet come. It took the legitimacy crisis of finance capitalism brought on by the great crash of 1929--the dangers of unchecked speculation became a national catastrophe--along with the collapse of the corporate system itself in the Depression for Americans battered by national economic forces to get, finally, a New Deal.

Must Americans battered by the even vaster and more impersonal forces of deregulated financial markets--in part driven, cannibalistically, by employee pension funds--and the new global economy wait as long? Must the real economy, with its real workers and real families and real communities, yield inexorably to every electronic burp of the financial economy? Must 80 percent of Americans accept flat or falling wages while the top one percent continue to amass more wealth than the bottom 90 percent? Will only one side of Henry Demarest Lloyd's 1894 classic Wealth Against Commonwealth have the upper hand for the next thirty years?

In a comparison of those nineties to ours, the cardinal difference is one of vision. The Populists, and their Progressive and Socialist and New Deal successors, had a coherent response to the national economy. We grope for a matching response to the world economy. Yet discontent is growing. For the first time since the New Deal, ordinary Americans are asking what the economy is for and why they must submit to the transnational lottery of the market and why self-rule must stop at the economy's edge. A new debate is quickening. It is not over justice or equality. It is over something much more American--the meaning and content of freedom.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1996; The Year of Talking Radically; Volume 277, No. 6; page 20.