Since the 2007–8 crash, no predictive macroeconomic theory can be presumed infallible. “Macroeconomics must get to grips with its epistemological woes if it hopes to maintain its influence and limit the damage done by the next crisis,” the Economist wrote recently. “Because economists have learned one thing: there is always another crisis.”
But economists aren’t the only ones who need to take stock of the new terrain. The Left, too, must decide how to respond to the failures of macroeconomic divination.
The inevitability and unpredictability of another crisis means that we must organize not just for conditions as they are now, but for a repeat, to a lesser or greater degree, of the conditions that existed during the Great Recession. That means that our strategies can’t simply be oriented around the achievement of reforms that elevate living standards; whatever incremental gains we make can be wiped away in an instant. Instead, we must pursue transformative projects that build the working-class majority’s capacity to fight harder and better when the chips are down.
Austerity is a permanent force in our politics. Whether Republicans or Democrats are in power, whether the economy is booming or busting, most contemporary politicians are compelled by an urge to spend “responsibly” instead of socially, and to transfer wealth from the bottom to the top in the process. The zeal for privatization, the passion for compromise with the business world, and the mistaken belief that working people respond well to negative incentives like the looming threat of homelessness or loss of medical care — in the era of neoliberalism, these are always present in our political arena.
But economic crises create a special window of opportunity for austerity politics. When people feel financially squeezed, they’re potentially more vulnerable to arguments that their taxes are too high, and that other working people are taking too big a bite out of their paychecks, which are already stretched thin. A good example is Scott Walker’s recession-era crusade to destroy collective bargaining and impose austerity measures on the state of Wisconsin by rhetorically dividing workers into deserving and undeserving, lazy and virtuous. The potential to layer racial and cultural resentment on top of these polarizing strategies is high and hard to subvert, especially in segregated communities where people from different backgrounds are not used to living and working alongside one another, much less fighting together against a common enemy.
The public’s response to divisive recession-era austerity politics can go either way. In Wisconsin it went both ways — Walker’s favorability dipped, but not fatally, and the state’s massive anti-austerity protests were met with smaller but still substantial Tea Party-affiliated counterprotests. The two potential attitudes to recession-era austerity are exemplified by the diversity of protest signs in Wisconsin in 2011. Some said, “Solidarity forever.” Others said, “Spread my work ethic, not my wealth.”
It appears that overall, the public became slightly more receptive to Walker-style austerity politics during the recession. A comprehensive study published in the American Sociological Review found: “Rather than the recession stimulating new public demands for government, Americans gravitated toward lower support for government responsibility for social and economic problems.” It’s no coincidence that the general attitude shifted rightward at the same time that the organized left was out of commission. Right now, given the Left’s comparative weakness, people are more likely to think their personal well-being is under attack because of social programs, rather than believing it’s under attack by the same forces waging simultaneous attacks on social programs.
Millions of working people still struggle to pay their bills and make ends meet in a stable capitalist economy. When the economy is faring well — or just fine, as the case may be — one of the major tasks of the Left is to engage in large-scale political activity that highlights the relationships between personal hardship and systematic privatization.
The US economy is recovering, but unevenly. Inequality remains colossal, and GOP policies muscled through under Trump guarantee that the trend will not reverse any time soon. We have to be thinking about the next economic crisis — and what to do in the interim.
The primary undertaking for left politics right now, then, is not merely suturing holes in the social safety net. Though we might be successful at it, those holes will merely be torn open again by the winds of economic crisis. Our task is more ambitious; it’s to reinfuse the public sphere with the kinds of political ideas and practices we’ll need to tap into once our collective fortunes inevitably change. We must pursue tactically diverse mass campaigns for universal social programs like single-payer health care, tuition-free education from pre-K onward, and a vast expansion of beautiful public housing.
At the heart of all such strategic campaigns is a popular demand to remove something crucial to human flourishing from the sphere of the market, to emancipate it from subordination to the profit motive and turn it over to the public — what we call decommodification. We need people to encounter ideas like these by the millions, so that when a crisis hits and austerity politicians try to divide us and take advantage of our heightened vulnerability, we can say no by the millions. And people can’t just encounter these ideas in the abstract; they need to encounter them in struggle, in the fight for concrete, large-scale reforms. It’s thus incumbent on the organized left to press as hard as possible on popular demands for universal social programs, which are both easily understood by people dealing with ordinary life struggles (e.g., medical debt and student loans, or no health care access and no feasible educational opportunities), and also by their very nature promote collective social prosperity while resisting marketization, privatization and austerity.
When the Great Recession began, socialist politics and class consciousness were at a historic nadir in the US. But the popular left-wing resurgence that started here in 2011 — from Wisconsin to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, to the unprecedented success of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the teachers’ strike wave, not to mention the explosion of explicitly left-wing membership organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America — has scarcely let up and shows no sign of abating. The Left is in a much stronger position now to forcefully and visibly advance a politics that emphasizes principles of solidarity and the perils of austerity, in ways that resonate with ordinary people who aren’t yet politicized.
If we take this task seriously, and work tirelessly starting now to popularize the mass demands against privatization and austerity that already exist, then next time a crisis hits we’ll see fewer “Spread my work ethic, not my wealth” signs, and more signs that say “Solidarity forever.”