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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 50, December 3, 2011

The American Crisis

Friday 9 December 2011, by Apratim Mukarji

Earlier this year the Rasmussen opinion poll found, somewhat to its surprise, that as much as eleven per cent of Americans polled were saying that they would respond positively if the United States went communist.

All over the country, throughout the length and bredth of which this author travelled for three months during August-October, scores of discussions, debates, writings, and of course public demonstrations (manifested most drama-tically in the “Occupy Wall Street” ones) were taking place to express the people’s anguish over the deepening crisis.

Among the dozens of books published during 2011 on the crisis were two which had particularly attracted public attention, Ariana Huffingdon’s Third World America and Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s That Used To Be US, What Went Wrong With America And How It Can Come Back.

Huffingdon, described variously as the “Empress of Internet” and “Slut Millionaire”, has taken upon herself the task of educating middle-class Americans about the downward journey that the country is taking and possible solutions to the crisis. Having provoked both supportive and highly vitriolic responses, she has since admitted that the title of her book is primarily meant to provoke public interest and debate on the issue and all that she is trying to say is that if the present policies are continued, the United States is likely to be acquiring the characteristics of a Third World country.

The second book records and analyses the dysfunctional governance and resultant gridlock, heedless public spending, abysmal levels of ignorance particularly in government and legis-lature, the traditional innovativeness withering away, the growing dependence on foreign funding, and a very badly failing public education system especially at the school level, among others.

Most analysts agree that the present crisis is different both qualitatively and quantitatively from the previous crises which had periodically visited the country. “It is a much deeper crisis, encompassing almost the entire American society in all its strata,” was the conclusion reached at a seminar at a University of Southern California campus.

The crisis is clearly not just economic but encompasses other major sectors of American society as well, such as political, educational, obviously infra-structural, and of course societal. The huge and very complex American society comprising first-generational and US-born Americans from no less than 180 nationalities and beset by deeply ingrained racial and linguistic prejudices presents a seemingly insur-mountable challenge to the hopelessly flawed political and economic systems prevailing in the country.

Incidentally, the so-called American crisis is ethnicity-specific. It has most seriously affected the Caucasian, Afro-American, and Hispanic populations and is largely absent in the lives of immigrant populations clearly dominated by Asians. Another way of describing the situation would be to say that it is the older immigrant communities, and not the newer ones, which are mainly affected.

Illustrations of the truth of this observation abound. For example, the US Census Bureau’s latest report, published in late November, says that “the majority (64 per cent) of foreign-born residents with degrees in Computers, Mathematics and Statistics were born in Asia, including 24 per cent who were born in India and 14 per cent were born in China”.

Similarly, a majority (61 per cent) of foreign-born with engineering degrees were born in Asia, including 22 per cent who were born in India and 13 per cent who were born in China. “The country of birth with the largest number of degrees in Science and Engineering (S & E) was India with 747,000 accounting for 18 per cent of the foreign-born population with S & E degrees,” the report pointed out.
The Census report provides many more statistics in the same vein, reinforcing the conclusion that the Indians and Chinese and Asians in particular (among other prominent achievers are the Vietnamese and Koreans) are far outstripping the Caucasians, Afro-Americans and Hispanics in career-building. The latter two communities are in fact at the bottom of the economic and academic rungs of the American society.

What does it mean in the context of the over nine per cent unemployment rate? It means that as millions of jobs are disappearing with industrial production stagnating and as the corporate sector finds increasingly tougher competition from China, better-qualified Asians are naturally favoured over poorly-qualified Whites, Blacks and Hispanics. Among the last-named three communities, it is the Blacks who are faring the worst for the same reason.

IT is perhaps the glaring economic woes that have brought certain traditional social and political inadequacies into a sharper focus than before. The Los Angeles Times recently printed on its front page a three-column photograph showing a patient sharing a bed with another patient in a prominent Southern California hospital. The accompanying report said that as patients were queuing up for admission in the hospital, nurses and paramedics were despe-rately looking for empty beds.

Like the infrastructure in every sector, that in the government-run hospitals too are breaking down. Bridges, highways and city roads across the country are visibly worn out; it is not rare at all to come across pot-holed streets in major cities, and municipal services like road-cleaning and park maintenance appear to have been given a go-by. Repair and reconstruction of bridges and roads are minimal.

The whole world is now well-aware of the federal government’s desperate struggle to acquire funds to undertake major infrastructural and economic rehabilitation of the country. As the Democrat-Republican tussle over the issue drags on in Washington D.C. and elsewhere, the chief casualty is the people’s faith in the two-party political system. By their continuing insensitivity to the rising popular discontent and the fully exposed inability to restore corrective governance to the country, the two political parties have alienated the people to the extent where the Occupy Wall Street sit-ins have grown into a genuine people’s movement.

The extent of the American crisis can be visually gauged. One single vacancy attracts not just scores but hundreds of job-seekers, and newspapers routinely carry advertisements of hundreds of foreclosed houses. The New York Times recently carried a story in which a 45-year-old man recounted how his sacking led quickly to losing his mortgaged house. The number of homeless people is rising, and one regularly comes across young and old Americans, mostly Blacks, begging in street corners across the country.

In state after state dissatisfaction over the school education system is manifesting itself in parents’ movements. Hiring buses, groups of parents are moving from town to town and city to city campaigning for overhauling the system which compels them to admit their children to district government schools. The average American household cannot afford private schools which are far better run but expensive, while most government schools are in a sorry state. Newspapers have written about teachers who retain their jobs without attending to their duties, while teachers complain about not receiving their salaries regularly. In fact, the financial crunch is so deep that state govern-ments and municipalities often default in paying salaries to their employees.

New York City was recently described as the “land of insanely rich” while some of its streets display the ugliest poverty found in the United States. Wealth-X, a global wealth intelligence company, found out that there were 7720 “mega-rich” people in the New York City area with an average financial worth of $ 30 million, followed by Los Angeles (4350), San Francisco (4230) and Chicago (2550) “mega-rich”.

At the same time, the Congressional Budget Office (whose reports are highly respected for their truthfulness) showed that over a 25-year period (1979-2007) the top one per cent of income earners enjoyed far bigger real income gains than the other 99 per cent. As a result, the share of total income earned by the top one per cent rose dramatically—doubling from 10 per cent to 20 per cent—at the expense of falling shares of income for all the other 99 per cent of the US population. This finding correlates perfectly with the slogan of the Occupy Wall Street movement, “We are the 99 per cent”.

It is time now to turn back to the Rasmussen survey with which this article began. The American crisis has taught certain basic lessons which are apparent to the people. One lesson is that the last thirty years of conservative preaching had served to “enable and mask one of the largest and fastest upward redistributions of income in modern history. The report thus documents the actual class war over recent decades: the real winners and losers. The report thereby exposes the absurdity of the recent bleats from the one per cent denouncing modest efforts to limit their huge gains as—horror of horrors—‘class war’,” wrote Richard Wolff in The Guardian (October 26).

“The 1 per cent,” he added, “used its growing wealth to make government taxing and spending policies aid, rather than constrain, the class war they pursued so systematically. The CBO report concludes that the top 1 per cent was the only portion of the total income-earning US popu-lation to experience a sharp rise in its share of the total US income taking into all federal transfers and taxes.”

Wolff concludes that the claims and promises of US capitalism to be an engine that builds and sustains a vast “middle class” and that cons-tantly “delivers the goods” seem more hollow today than ever. “Questions, criticisms and opposition bubble up across the country. The CBO report reflects, as well as documents, the underlying economic realities. However inadvertently, it thereby supports the rising tide of protest.”

It is but natural that today’s American crisis has emerged as a reminder of the eventual validity of Karl Marx’s various theories about the crisis that the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system are slated to throw up from time to time. “It is a moment Karl Marx would have relished,” wrote the The Guardian in 2008 when the present crisis first hit the US economy. “From every angle financial capitalism is taking a battering.”

And, despite the great time divide, what Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelmann on July 11,1868, may perhaps still ring a bell: “Every child knows a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish. Every child knows too that the masses of products…require different and quantitatively determined masses of the total labour of society. That this necessity of distribution of social labour in definite proportions cannot possibly be done away with by a particular form of social production but can only change the mode of its appearance, is self-evident. No natural laws can be done away with. What can change in histori-cally different circumstances is only the form in which these laws assert themselves.”

Apratim Mukarji, who has returned from a visit to the US, is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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