Although the coronavirus provided the trigger for the current global shrinkage, the economic crisis was already looming when the pathogen made its physical appearance.
“The Race to the Bottom cannot coexist with a living wage or a truly universal national health care system.”
Donald Trump mouths the words “Chinese disease” with a racist sneer, playing a juvenile game of “dozens” while the world economy shrinks. Although the geographic origin of Covid-19 is open to question, the prime vector of chronic global economic sickness is indisputably the United States – the place where all the symptoms of late stage capitalism in chaotic decline are on full display.
In 2008, British authorities initially resisted collaborating with Washington’s plans to bail out failing corporate financial institutions. The Brits didn’t want “to import the “American disease,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. Most of the world caught the disease anyway, in the same way that global capitalism was brought to the brink of death from the economic pestilence that originated on Wall Street in the Great Crash of 1929.
The United States is the planet’s breeding ground for virulent capitalist disease, having spawned both of the great meltdowns of the 20th and 21st centuries and most of the less lethal crises that flare with regularity in global “markets.” As the endemic host of capitalist chaos, the U.S. has also become indelibly identified with the jobs-killing self-medications conjured by Wall Street and its political servants to save “the markets.” When Japan went into a long, deep economic stagnation characterized by “the excessive and virtually continuous distortion of income distribution at the expense of employees,” Business Insider diagnosed that as the “American disease” – an apt assessment, since the United States by then led the developed world in income and wealth inequality. Researchgate describes largescale corporate downsizing of workforces as “’the American disease,’ caught by numerous countries in times of economic recession.”
“The United States is the planet’s breeding ground for virulent capitalist disease.”
Actually, the “American disease” is not so much “caught” by other nations, as actively spread by a globe-swallowing superpower that insists on the right to penetrate every nook and cranny of the planet with its corporate spores, under the protection of 800-plus military bases and multinational “trade” treaties that obliterate governments’ abilities to resist U.S.-based corporate contagion.
The “American disease” is simply late stage, globe-trotting capitalism with American characteristics. Although the coronavirus provided the trigger for the current global shrinkage, the economic crisis was already looming when the pathogen made its physical appearance. As economists told the Washington Post, U.S. corporations were $10 trillion in debt on the eve of the Covid-19 crisis, equal to about half the gross national product. Goldman Sachs estimated that “one-quarter of the country’s largest companies had more cash going out than coming in.” And, the so-called “repo market” crisis erupted before Covid-19’s debut in the U.S, necessitating a $400 billion bailout. A meltdown was coming, with or without the intervention of tiny bits of viral DNA. The recent $2 trillion “stimulus” is really another corporate bailout, justified by the coronavirus.
Crises are endemic to capitalism. In the United States, where corporations have achieved near-total political hegemony, the harshest contradictions of capitalism are no longer mitigated and softened by state intervention, under prodding by “peoples” forces such as unions and social movements. Rather, the US government is a capitalist tool, as is the tag-team of duopoly political parties. Capitalism entered its “late” stage when finance capital became supreme over all the other sectors of capital and made the state its abject servant and golden goose.
“A meltdown was coming, with or without the intervention of tiny bits of viral DNA.”
The “American disease” – late stage capitalism with U.S. characteristics – is the most virulent strain of a centuries-old system. As the world’s most successful white settler state and the first truly bourgeois republic, the U.S. was from its inception dedicated to the rule of money over humankind and the environment; and to the supremacy of whiteness, the forceful expropriation of other people’s territory and resources, and the subjugation of non-whites. While European colonialism looted far-flung lands and peoples, the United States became a major economic power through Black chattel slavery within its own borders, genocide of the natives on whose land the Republic stood, and expansion through the seizure and incorporation of its darker neighbor’s territory (Mexico). From the beginning, colonialism was U.S. domestic policy, and empire-building its national project – all for the enrichment of a white ruling class.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the Lords of Capital deployed U.S. imperial military and financial power to initiate a worldwide Race to the Bottom in which all of the Earth’s workers would compete for employment, including the Empire’s own domestic workforce. Productivity would skyrocket as the costs of labor (wages) plummeted. Billionaires became as common as millionaires used to be, even as the superpower’s cities and national infrastructure crumbled and living standards stagnated and fell. With the collaboration of the fraudulently pro-labor and pro-Black Democratic Party, the corporate rulers slashed social services and labor protections under an “austerity” regime whose real purpose was to make working people so desperate and insecure they would accept any job, under any conditions and wage – a capitalists’ paradise, and the purpose of the Race to the Bottom. The banks were unleashed to float mega-bubbles and package worthless assets – until the inevitable burst.
“From the beginning, colonialism was U.S. domestic policy, and empire-building its national project – all for the enrichment of a white ruling class.”
With both political parties in the oligarchs’ pockets, and social movements largely inert, there was nothing to stop the U.S. ruling class from indulging in every speculative excess imaginable, creating new and more exotic financial “instruments” that yoked the nation’s and world’s destinies to “derivatives” notionally valued at 20 times the worth of all the goods and services produced by humanity. U.S. healthcare – which was never a “system” worthy of the name – was shrunken and privatized, including much of the nation’s only “socialist” medical institution, the Veterans’ Administration healthcare services.
"Every broken piece of our society restricted us from responding to this crisis, from welfare reform to post-2008 austerity to the war on crime. You can't divorce any of it," writes David Dayen, of The American Prospect. But of course, the damage was systematically inflicted by the corporate-bought politicians of both parties – including every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter.-- at the behest of the ruling oligarchy. The transfer of jobs and production to the low wage East and South was the consensus policy of the U.S. and European ruling classes. Austerity (The Race to the Bottom) reigned supreme on both sides of the Atlantic and was enforced in the formerly colonized world by Western-dominated international financial institutions.
The profoundly racist nature of U.S. society -- born in slavery and genocide and unrepentant – allowed the capitalist rulers to strip away even the thin veneer of a welfare state that had been thrown together in the Sixties, and then to dismantle and sell off the health care infrastructure. Race has always ruled politics in a nation founded as a White Man’s Country, and which now pays its citizens what W.E.B. Dubois called “psychological wages,” constantly exhorting the populace to bask in the glow of empire and exceptionalism. But, the Race to the Bottom cannot coexist with a living wage or a truly universal national health care system. The Lords of Capital have prospered fantastically in this Race, and have no other vision for the future. The rulers have drawn lines in the sand and their minions in both corporate parties dare not cross them – come hell, high water or pandemic,
Joe Biden is proof that the rulers will not allow their operatives to give an inch on austerity/Race to the Bottom. Even as the people’s lives and livelihoods are threatened by the worst epidemic in a century, Biden stands fast with the oligarchy: no Medicare for All.
What happens when the “American (political-economic) Disease” meets the pandemic? Nothing, if the people don’t demand an end to the Race to the Bottom that has left them with less defenses against disease than any other developed nation. Everything, if they resist. Some folks are calling for a general strike on May 1st.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at [email protected]
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