Easily the worst panel I saw at Netroots Nation was titled, “Beyond Occupy: What Does a New Economic System Look Like?” Now, doesn’t that seem like a really interesting panel? I was hoping for some serious discussions integrating the Occupy critique into hard thinking about how we create a more equitable system. Put a neo-liberal type up there, a socialist, an intellectual who had been part of Occupy, a union person–this could be really good.
Instead, we got the most misleading title at the entire conference. This panel was nothing more than a cheerleading session for Clinton-era capitalism. Quite literally–Jennifer Ancona, the panel chair, quite literally cheered when someone else said capitalism was a great thing. There were smart people on the panel–Ancona as chair, the former chief economist at the IMF Simon Johnson, Erica Payne, Sarita Gupta from Jobs with Justice, and Colin Mutchler, a Silicon Valley CEO who frankly offered nothing useful. Five people who, in various ways, thought that capitalism, with just a few tiny tweaks to make it a bit more fair and less corrupt, was the perfect system. That’s certainly typical of a big section of the Netroots and that’s fine, but of course the panel’s labeling was a lie–no one on that panel had probably ever talked to anyone from Occupy, not to mention that it wasn’t about a new economic system.
But really it was worse than that. Ancona literally said “When I think of labor, I think of the past” while Payne (and I paraphrase here) exclaimed that the truly free market was the ideal economic system. Even Gupta offered no real challenge to this free-market love fest; her most notable contribution was to blame unions for looking out for their own members.
This all drove me crazy not because it’s not a legitimate perspective–certainly someone with these ideas could be very useful on such a panel. By sheer chance, I walked outside my office just after starting this post. On the table outside my office someone placed an old issue of The Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations that featured an interview with Johnson (was it you higher power of my choice?). And he’s a real smart guy. He’s genuinely angry that a system that he not only believed in but participated in has proven so utterly worthless. He’s always worth hearing speak.
Rather, the panel was infuriating because it showed a complete lack of understanding about how the economic system has declined and what we can do to make it better. Virtually no discussion or understanding about labor underpinned a panel whose participants clearly saw the halcyon days of 20 years ago as ideal–the go-go Clinton capitalism of the 90s. But the system was already corrupt and dying during those years and no one on the panel had an answer for this. Johnson himself kept focusing on replacing Jamie Dimon. Dimon might be evil. But Dimon is not the problem. Get rid of Dimon and his replacement is a clone. The problem is with the system that spawns such ideas and actions. And I guess this sums up my differences with this kind of thinking–Johnson believes in the system enough to think replacing Dimon could be really effective. I’m certainly fine with kicking Dimon to the curb, but I see the entire system of global capitalism as destructive to the world’s people and ecology. Dumping Dimon does nothing to solve that problem.
All of these people just wanted to convince the capitalists to be good. But there’s no reason for the capitalists to act nice. Why should they?
As I’ve stated before, capitalists and governments only reform when pressured from the left. Fix the problems of the Gilded Age so the anarchists quit shooting our presidents in the stomach and our industrialists in the face is a useful way to think about the Progressive Era. FDR enacted the New Deal to save capitalism from itself and undermine communism and fascism from spreading in the United States. The War on Poverty and other Great Society programs were in large part a response to the horrible inequality of the nation so powerfully articulated by the civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Today, there is no real pressure from the left. With the decline of the USSR, extremist capitalism was in full ascent and the political spectrum swung hard to the right. Any questioning of capitalism meant one was totally irrelevant. The economic left collapsed and the triumphal era of Clinton capitalism ascended.
Obviously, old school state socialism is never coming back; probably it shouldn’t. But until we articulate options to capitalism that scare the capitalists, nothing will stop them from destroying the rest of the social safety net and middle class. We need to be thinking about better systems than supposedly free-market capitalism, organizing around them, and threatening the capitalists’ dominance over the nation and the world. I realize this is long-term, maybe even pie-in-the-sky. And capitalism with a benevolent face might be a pretty good way for a lot of people to live. But we aren’t going to get that benevolent capitalism until people force the capitalists to grant it in order that they don’t reject the system entirely. That’s why we need to think about radical alternatives to capitalism.
In other words, we need to actually think about a post-Occupy economy and not use the OWS name as an excuse to get people into the room and then hold a big party for mildly-regulated capitalism.