Radio commentary, February 7, 2009

[As the introductory sentence says, these comments were the opening to a special fundraising edition of Behind the News in its KPFA avatar. No audio is available because the show consisted mainly of excerpts from David Harvey’s lectures on Capital and pleas for support. If you like reading these commentaries and listening to the audio archives, you can help assure them a future by pledging to support KPFA. You can do that online here: Donate to KPFA. The lectures by Harvey are listed in the right column, “$101 and Up” – search for “Harvey” or scroll down to $250.]

Given the imperative of raising money for KPFA, I’ll keep these comments short.

First a few words on the January employment report (text here), which came out Friday morning. In a word, it was horrible. It wasn’t the worst in history, but it’s not all that far from the worst. Almost 600,000 jobs disappeared last month. About half the losses were in the goods sector—rounding for radio, about 100,000 in construction and 200,000 in manufacturing. But almost 300,000 jobs disappeared in the private service sector, where more than 2/3s of us work. In the recessions of the 1950s through the 1980s, services were largely immune—but that started changing in the downturn of the early 90s. Now, services are really participating in the shrinkage.

This release also came with the regular annual revisions to the employment data, which are based on the near-complete coverage provided by the unemployment insurance system. (The regularly monthly releases are based on a survey of employers—a very large survey, but still less than complete.) The revisions tell us that job losses in 2008 were even worse than we’d thought – almost 400,000 worse.

The BLS also does a monthly survey of households, to match the one of employers. Its most familiar component is the unemployment rate, which rose a sharp 0.4 point to 7.6%, the highest since 1992. Almost all of that rise came from people who’ve lost their jobs forever—as opposed to people on temporary layoff who expect to be recalled, or new job market entrants. The so-called employment/population ratio, the share of the adult population working, fell by 0.5 point to 60.0, its second-worst decline ever, and to the lowest level since 1986.

Unemployment has been higher, and job contractions sharper. But what’s really scary about all this is that in most post-World War II recessions, this is about when we could expect things to start stabilizing, or even turning around. But all indications are that things are still getting worse, and likely to do so for at least several more months. At least. Which is why a giant stimulus package is greatly urgent.

And speaking of that stimulus package, I’m stunned at the Republicans success in blocking passage, and the Obama administration’s equanimity in face of that obstructionism. Ok, the boss is showing some signs of losing patience with the Republicans, but his eagerness to court people who’ve made their stubborn partisanship very clear, has been baffling. Hell, some Republican Congressman said the other day that his party was taking guidance from the Taliban, in their stubbornness and skill at messing things up.

I just said that Obama’s eagerness to court Republicans has been baffling, but maybe it makes good sense. In past weeks, I’ve mentioned Adolph Reed’s idea that Obama aims to peel off some of the non-Taliban Republicans to form a centrist governing block, thereby isolating the left and right. But I suspect something else is at work too. Many commentators have described the 2008 election as the end of Reaganism, which in some senses it was—though, as Pat Buchanan noted, Obama’s inaugural address, with its quote from scripture, its heroicizing of the Vietnam war, and its calls for personal responsibility, was in no small part still under the Gipper’s influence. Which is a hint of how to understand what’s going on.

A lot of people thought they were voting for “change” last November, though the nature of that change was always left vague—you might guess, deliberately so. Contrast that with 1980, when Reagan’s victory represented the culmination of the post-World War II conservative movement’s agitation against statism and the New Deal. But for a long time, movement conservatism was a tiny thing. I speak with some personal knowledge—I was briefly a movement conservative in the early 1970s. Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom is one of the things that did it to me. (It’s fashionable for a lot of people on the left to dismiss Friedman as a hack, which is deeply unfair. He was a very effective polemicist, both within the economics profession and in the popular realm.) I was a member of the Party of the Right at Yale from 1971-72 (story here here and here), and believe me, there were very few of us. That changed as the decade went on, of course. I recovered from my bout of market libertarianism, but the rest of the body politic contracted the disease.

As Sidney Blumenthal tells it in his excellent book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, the American corporate class didn’t originate the rightward shift in politics in the 1970s—conservative intellectuals and thinktankers persuaded them that adopting the movement’s agenda was necessary to end inflation, crush the working class, and restore U.S. power abroad. Walter Wriston, the former chair of Citibank, told Blumenthal that folks like him were initially skeptical of Reagan, but he won them around. Once the CEO class was down with the program, everything changed, of course, and the rest—the right-wing ascendancy of the last 30 years—is familiar history.

But there is nothing comparable now. There’s no vigorous intellectual movement on the left that corresponds with movement conservatism 30-plus years ago. (And, by the way, Sam Tannenhaus has a very interesting article article in The New Republic on the death of movement conservatism; I’m going to try to get him on the show soon to talk about it.) Nor is there any popular movement to give the intellectual movement its juice. The best we can do for an alternative agenda is the tepid stuff coming out of places like the Center for American Progress, which, while not worthless, is mostly mush. Reagan was the very capable figurehead of a movement of intellectuals that was eventually reinforced by elite support. Obama is the very capable figurehead of next to nothing except some fond wishes. Except that Wall Street gave him lots of money for his campaign, and it shows.

It shows in the wretched nature of the financial bailout, for example. But getting into that would run overtime, given today’s tight schedule.

That schedule is dictated by the need to raise some money to keep this corner of popular and intellectual radicalism alive. And today we’re featuring a series of 13 lectures by the great geographer David Harvey on a thinker who could help power a revival of the left: Karl Marx. Yeah, he lived long ago, but that didn’t stop the right wing from turning to the 18th century’s Adam Smith for inspiration. Marx’s Capital, the subject of Harvey’s lectures, is the best analysis ever written of the system that’s gotten itself into serious trouble today, and Harvey offers a tremendous way of approaching this formidable work.

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