When “recovery” means “austerity”

August 11, 2011

HAVE YOU heard? The job market is on the mend. The U.S. Labor Department (USLD) reported that July 2011 posted 117,000 new jobs created for that month, dropping the unemployment rate to 9.1 percent. Leading some optimistic economists to now cry again "Recovery!"--or, at the very least, "Stability."

But for many Americans, this light at the end of the tunnel is just another bend in a crushing spiral of unemployment and under-employment.

What the USLD report does not account for is that fewer people were working this year in June, adding to the numbers of "discouraged workers" who have given up the job hunt, and who do not then configure into July's figures. Nor does it account for the possibility that some of these workers will come out of the woodwork drawn by the illusion of a better job market only to be turned away next month by a decrepit economy. No matter which language you try, this doesn't spell "recovery."

The news from the USLD came hot on the heels of a bone crunching "compromise" between Democrats and Republicans to raise the debt ceiling at the expense of $2.1 trillion from the federal budget over the next 10 years and was quickly followed by downgrading of the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+ by Standard and Poor's.

While this incremental slide might not belie a tremendous slip in the United States' status as a world power, the contexts of the slide--an ongoing crisis, ineffective government, two enduring wars and several smaller ones--speaks volumes to the maligned prestige of the American empire.

The fact is that the picture is far from rosy. Even mainstream news sites that have been so quick to grasp onto any good new coming out of the economy have been forced to temper their enthusiasm for the USLD report.

The reality is that an accurate depiction of the United States in the mid-summer of 2011 has to begin with the economic inequality standing at the staggering figures the pre-Great Depression era. Add to that a feeble, tottering economy; its flaccid job markets and rising prices.

And then consider the recent rigor mortis-like posturing of the federal government vis-à-vis the debt deal: prepared to do piss-all for the American worker except offer up our security as blood offering at the alter of capital. The ruling elite may maintain their rose-colored glasses, but the people are squinting from lack of prescription lenses.

WHILE THE sheer unimaginativeness of the ruling class may astound some and has even led to the downgrading of the United States' credit rating, the recent grid-lock in Washington over the debt ceiling, though truly dysfunctional, is nothing more than the logic of oligarchic government played out to a rational end--a government that says, "Defend capital at all costs, regardless of the human casualties."

Both parties in Washington, in obeisant courtesy to their corporate masters, and hell bent on protecting wealth and their own incumbencies, could only bring themselves to not agree on how to cut social spending, with either a knife or a spoon. The argument isn't so much about the logistics, as it is about the effectiveness of a painful incision.

And what of capital? Like a sottish Las Vegas gambler who faced with soundless losses can think of nothing better than to double down -to play the game harder, so the masters of finance play at neoliberalism: A Washington-based economic system that has demanded pound after pound of flesh taken from the flanks of the social safety net of developing countries over the past 30 years, and has now planted its flag at home, driven into the shoulders of working people, with the cry of "Austerity!"

Austerity isn't satisfied until the belts are cinched to their final notch and the social safety net is reduced to bare threads. Austerity will mean a bigger rift between the rich and the poor. And who wants austerity? The same ruling-class cronies whose mouths salivate at those prospects.

The gap between the rich and poor, and the ongoing destruction of federal and state social programs can only add to the further destabilization of American society, and workers are feeling the wrongness of it in the air. What's more, they are showing a willingness to take their grievances out into the streets. Earlier this year, Wisconsin Gov. Walker's salvo against public-sector unions put the American working class into a fighting mood.

Though Walker was nominally successful in cowering the labor movement, his victory may prove pyrrhic. This week, 45,000 Verizon employees have gone on strike in protest of bitter concessions offered in stale management contracts, showing evidence of a new vitality in American labor.

However, this angst is not expressed by only organized workers. Recently, cultural critics from the magazine Adbusters declared their intent to lead an occupation in New York City.

Previously, any call to occupy a city square for the purpose of achieving social demands might well have gone unheeded, but the recent square occupations in Europe and the unfolding revolutions in the Middle East lend these calls a certain gravity. Whether this is just a glossy imitation is still waiting to be seen. However, the sheer fact that this action has been called for in an arena that has past felt very comfortable in its armchair is worth watching closely.

Regardless of how these calls are received, the time has never been more right for a fight back. Indeed, according, to Britain's Daily Mail, the gap between rich and poor is even greater here in the United States than in revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia, underscoring the seriousness and the timeliness of a grassroots struggle against wealth disparity, corruption and austerity here in the United States.

Struggle is not foreign to the American people. Our history is replete with instances of everyday men and women standing up to the wrong perpetrated on us by Big Business and stuffed-shirt politicians. Political organization is necessary if we are to integrate the lessons of the past into the struggles of the future.

We need to turn the feelings of angst and wrongdoing by politicians and the ruling class into an active struggle. People are realizing that we cannot wait for leaders to emerge--we are the leaders. Sweep bureaucracy into the dustbin, put reservations and hesitancy under the rug; radicalization is happening all around us and from within.

A new generation of activists are filling out the ranks of old struggles and bringing a new one into the light. This is our time.
Matthew Camp, Chicago

Brit Schulte contributed to this article.

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