Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reagan, the Reagan Revolution, and Obama

Although I can't say I approve of it, I think that I now understand more of where the 'Reagan Revolution' was coming from, and how what Obama is doing avoids some of the pitfalls that lead to it. Specifically, although they may at times have called what they were opposing socialism, what in fact the Reagan Revolution was confronting wasn't socialism itself but a liberal welfare state. There's a difference, although there can be a socialist welfare state as well. There were a large number of government programs that addressed lots of issues without any sort of means testing to see whether they were effective or not, and that dodged the issue of class entirely. Why they did that is integral to their failure.

The post-war United States saw one of the biggest economic booms in all of history. Europe was destroyed, so was Japan, and the Soviet Union was closed off to outside economies, so we had world trade and development all to ourselves. Many people thought that what was in fact only a temporary situation was permanent, and that soon it would extend not just to the United States but to the rest of the world as well. Because of this, class was thought to no longer be an issue, and with that the difference between a socialist state and a liberal state became unimportant as well. But there, in fact, are important differences regarding how society itself functions, differences that would be important in good times as well as bad, most importantly the continued existence of a class system as well as the concentration of economic power in few hands. That people were in general prosperous only obscured what still existed below the surface.

So, without addressing the fundamental contradictions of society, the liberal welfare state just made more programs that touched the surface of things without looking at their root causes. This lead to lots of inefficiencies and a large bureaucracy, and in the later Carter years when the economy tanked, the shit hit the fan, so to speak. With the Golden Age over, all of those social programs had quite a hard time justifying themselves, especially with class asserting itself as an issue for a group that had been given short shrift in the social program arena: white working class males. The thing is that whatever guilt or responsibility white folks had and have, once the recession hit they were suffering just like anyone else, and ignoring that did not make people happy.

The regulatory legislation that was brought in at the same time as the social programs must have looked like bureaucratic do-gooder-ness, even though in many cases it did great things...like the very existence of the EPA, for example. But perhaps taking over from resentment against the social programs the idea of grass roots citizen action in starting businesses in opposition to government bureaucracy gained traction.

However, the small business vs. big government paradigm that was established, that's been flailed about ever since, is based on a false opposition. Either a large top level set of programs that sits on top of society directing it or virtuous small business people. Socialism itself provides another option, or social democracy at least. Fundamental to socialism, if implicit in it, is the idea of society as a common wealth that everyone participates in, and to the role of government as making that commonwealth more participatory and equal through effecting structural change that once in place simply has to be maintained. The idea of endless social programs that don't solve problems is not what folks who are socialists should be aiming for--instead, what should be the case is action taken at the root causes that solves them so that less social programs in general will be needed.

Although business in its higher realms is of course effected by socialism, social democratic and otherwise, there's nothing stopping small businesspeople from getting started and taking initiative. Instead, what's recognized is that on the whole it's the larger accumulations of economic power in corporations and industries that makes the difference for society, and if you really want to effect change you'll have to alter the way they do business, how they function.

Despite claims to the contrary, I really do believe that Obama is moving us closer to a social democracy, and that this is a very good thing. If we continue to look at the root causes and try to find public solutions to them, for example with health care, we'll recognize soon enough that addressing structural problems in society does not mean turning society into a dictatorship. Instead, socialism, or most socialism, has always advocated changing the structure of society so that people can get on with living their lives.

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