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Wednesday, January 03, 2018


Draining a different swamp

by Tom Sullivan

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia.

The prospect of former Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann attempting to "stand for biblical principles in DC" again has Charlie Pierce praying to baby Jesus to give her the go-ahead.

In toying with whether or not to run for Al Franken's Senate seat, Bachmann told The Jim Bakker Show, she was pondering the downside. "But there's also a price you pay," Bachmann said. "And the price is bigger than ever because the swamp is so toxic."

But it's a bigger, more luxurious swamp under the sitting president. It's a toxic amalgam of Jesus Christ, Ayn Rand, and Horatio Alger behind wide-eyed faith in the Market. Mixed with a little ruling-class authoritarianism, of course. That's the swamp that needs draining.

Jeff Spross, The Week's business and economics correspondent, examines how we might deprogram ourselves from faith in markets as the central organizing principle of society. For Spross, The Great Transformation, by the political economist Karl Polanyi offers some guidelines.

Faith in the Market represents a kind of "deranged utopianism," Spross writes:

Polanyi published The Great Transformation in 1944. He had spent his life watching the runaway free market ideology of the early 1900s undermine one Western nation after another, leading to rival nationalisms and World War I, and then finally culminating in the global catastrophe of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism. In our own time, the global turn towards neoliberalism in the 1980s unchained capital to amass enormous market power and roam freely across the globe, taking jobs with it. Regulatory and welfare state protection were rolled back, while governments turned to austerity and tight money policy.

The result was decades of rising inequality, job dislocation, and wage stagnation, ending in yet another global economic collapse in 2008. Polanyi would not be surprised to see Trumpism and European ethno-nationalism ascendant in the aftermath.

The good news is that societies don't inevitably destroy themselves in reaction to market society's contradictions. Sometimes, they successfully beat back the reach of markets, build social protections, and de-commodify key parts of human life. Polanyi called it the "double movement." After World War II, Europe built large and generous welfare states, made unions nearly ubiquitous, and codified worker rights and bargaining power into law. America responded with the New Deal: Social Security, Medicare, another (albeit smaller) rise in unionization, antitrust law, regulation, and mass public investment.
If a wave election brings Democrats back into power in 2018, they had better come prepared, Spross arvises, with a menu of reforms from "a universal child allowance, expanded Medicaid, or even single-payer health care and a universal basic income" to massive infrastructure spending.

But it's not just faith in the Market that has led to this juncture, I'd argue. It is the belief in the public corporation as the Market's principle agent of capitalism. One business model to rule them all, one that threatens government of, by, and for the people. Your software and hardware get regular upgrades. But suggest the corporate model for organizing a business needs one and out come the long knives.

Go back and look at conservatives' reactions to Pope Francis and ask yourselves whether this isn't an economic cult.

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Request a copy of For The Win, my county-level election mechanics primer, at tom.bluecentury at gmail.