Eighty years ago, with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, adopting a number of the policy planks of the Socialist Party [but of course not acknowledging as much], began a successful effort of more than three decades to put in place a structure of protections for working class families that is now usually referred to as The Welfare State. Social Security, a federally enforced minimum wage, unemployment insurance, Aid to Dependent Children, workplace safety regulations, unionization protections, Medicare, and Medicaid, among other initiatives, fundamentally transformed the life experiences of hundreds of millions of Americans. It was not socialism. Indeed, one of its purposes was to weaken the appeal of socialism and thus protect capitalism from its own destructive tendencies. But it made a long and good life possible even for those who did not inhabit the upper reaches of society. It is easy to forget that two generations ago, the aged were among the poorest segments of the American population, living lives extended by medical advances but made miserable by poverty and neglect.
From the beginning, these laws, regulations, and government institutions were opposed by conservatives, who fought them in Congress and challenged them in the courts. For at least forty years, it has been the stated goal of the Republican Party to dismantle the Welfare State, component by component, and as the decades have passed, they have achieved some of their goals, on occasion aided by the Democratic Party itself. Ronald Reagan’s first significant act upon assuming the presidency was to fight, and eventually to break, the air traffic controllers’ union, a success that accelerated the decline of unionization in America. Workplace safety laws have been weakened, the minimum wage frozen so as not to keep pace with inflation, and under the guidance of Bill Clinton, “welfare as we know it” was ended. This last “reform” had a less than feared effect during the boom years of the 90’s, but in the present deep and continuing recession, the absence of financial support for the poor is causing widespread, albeit mostly unreported, hardship.
In the next ten days or so, we face the threat of a Supreme Court reversal of the Affordable Care Act, with consequences whose severity is only now being recognized. This threat is widely recognized as only the first battle in a campaign to undo judicially the last eighty years of welfare legislation, returning us to the conditions that obtained when FDR took office.
These legislative and judicial assaults have of course been coupled with a massive increase in income and wealth inequality, of a sort never before seen in this country. The present tendencies threaten to turn
into a Banana Republic, with permanent high unemployment, stagnant wages for all but the fortunate few, and the complete transformation of our politics into a Plutocracy. America
Nothing that I have just written is in the slightest new or original, of course. But living at the moment in a country that has just elected a socialist president and legislature brings home to me how appalling the
has become even by capitalist standards. I am under no illusion that Barack Obama and the present-day Democratic Party offer Americans a truly progressive path beyond “vulture capitalism” [to invoke on of Rick Perry’s more felicitous phrases]. But Obama and the Democratic Party will, if they are in power, protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, support and extend necessary reforms to the capitalist health care system, raise the minimum wage, enforce workplace health and safety standards, impose some measure of regulation [albeit insufficient] on finance capital, and undertake to create jobs by economic stimuli. With working class Americans under siege, that is not nothing, by a long shot. United States
One can, of course, hold out for the complete collapse of capitalism, as a precursor to a socialist transformation. But no one of whom I am aware has explained how that transformation would emerge from the chaos and misery of the collapse. Perhaps I am too much the victim of the history through which I have lived, but I fear that fascism would be a likelier successor than socialism to a total collapse of capitalism.
These are not happy times, even for someone my age who can expect to die before the worst happens.