The Servant Economy

By Jeff Faux

You know you’re really in tune with an author’s message when you’re already nodding your head at their first sentence. Here’s how Jeff Faux’s The Servant Economy gets started:

Historians who look back to our time will surely conclude that our problem was not that we didn’t know where we were headed, it was that we didn’t act on what we knew.

This is most obviously the case when it comes to issues like the destruction of the environment and climate change, but it’s just as true when applied to Faux’s subject, which is the transformation of the American economy. The trends here are notorious: growing economic inequality, rising levels of debt, and a shrinking middle class. As Faux remarks, it would be hard not to be aware that this has been the direction things have been heading for the past thirty years.

So then why not do something about it? The short answer to that is that government policy is developed and implemented by elites who have been benefiting at the expense of the middle class. The last thirty years have been good for them. They see no need for the country to change course. “America” may be in decline (I use the quotation marks to adopt Faux’s own skepticism about how the label gets used, in contrast to “Americans”), and the majority of Americans feeling it, but that is irrelevant to the 1%.

And in fact the period just prior to our present long decline – that is, the post-World War 2 “golden age” of American capitalism that ran roughly from 1947 to 1973 – was a historical anomaly. The natural state of capitalism is uglier, as a look at the historical record attests. And though ugly in American too, a variety of factors has helped to “cushion” its effects throughout much of the nation’s history. But in our own time the cushion has deflated, globalization has put an end to American exceptionalism, and things are starting to default back to nasty.

This should all be common knowledge by now, but if it isn’t Faux provides a clear-sighted account of how we got here and where “here” is. But the most important, and sad, part of his analysis comes at the end, as he looks into the future for the takeaway that nothing is going to change:

So, is it hopeless?
To expect the American governing class at the top to change the direction of the economy that has brought its members prosperity – yes. To expect a confused and divided citizenry to agree on a common economic agenda and impose it on the government class – yes.
There is simply not enough space now in our political discourse for the governing class to consider policy solutions that reach to the level of the problems that they are supposed to solve. Serious regulation of Wall Street is off the table. Abandoning the role of world policeman is off the table. In the debate over health care, a single-payer health care system like Canada’s is off the table. Industrial policies and trade policies are off the table. Strengthening the bargaining position of workers is off the table. Government planning to build a sustainable economy by moving off the sandpile of consumption and debt is well off the table.
These ideas are judged as impractical by the corporate media, which defines political reality for the electorate. Why? Not because we don’t know how to make them work. It is because they are not consistent with the interests of the rich and powerful.

So, yes, it is hopeless. Under the Democrats things might fall apart a little less quickly than if the Republicans are in power, but the writing is on the wall. Even more so given that Faux’s two suggestions for possible reform and “hope, from the ashes of no hope” – a constitutional amendment taking away the legal fiction of corporate personhood and hard limits on campaign spending – are even further “off the table” than any of the other items on his list of non-starters.

Finally, the chapter “From Service to Servitude” is specially recommended, and stands on its own as required (if depressing) reading. Here Faux outlines the fate of the non-elite as members of a demoralized, de-politicized, and degraded workforce, their only marketable skill their ability to ingratiate themselves with the master class.

Just remember: we won’t be able to say we were never warned. We know where we’re headed.

Review first published online January 7, 2013.

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