RACHEL #458: A High-Wage, Low-Waste Future

Peter Montague montague at world.std.com
Wed Sep 6 21:27:02 MDT 1995

=======================Electronic Edition========================
.                                                               .
.           RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #458           .
.                    ---September 7, 1995---                    .
.                          HEADLINES:                           .
.                 A HIGH-WAGE, LOW-WASTE FUTURE                 .
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Let us take off our rose-colored glasses for a moment.[1]  When
we look into American society what do we see?  Falling wages and
rising inequality, racial and gender injustice, devastation of
inner-city neighborhoods, expanding environmental degradation,
domestic violence, lack of affordable health care, shallow
pro-corporate media, agonized and wasted urban youth, rampant
commercialism, increasing intolerance, fewer libraries, more
prisons, and worse.  The inventory of pain reminds us that
current policies don't "promote the general welfare" and can't
ensure "liberty and justice for all."  We are saddened and
outraged by the way we now govern ourselves as a people.

Central to all these problems is the deliberate restructuring of
the economy that is under way, promoted chiefly by corporate
policies with the acquiescence of government.  Corporations are
seeking to increase their profits and competitiveness by merging
and downsizing (eradicating half a million well-paid jobs each
year); replacing permanent full-time workers with temporary
part-timers; deliberately destroying job security as a way of
imposing discipline on working people, diminishing their power to
demand decent wages and benefits such as health care and
retirement packages; and degrading the environment (mining
natural resources at unsustainable rates worldwide, and using
nature as a toilet for unwanted, often toxic, byproducts).
Government's most conspicuous role in all this has been to
subsidize corporate restructuring; wink at massive white-collar
crime (e.g., the $500-billion-plus S&L debacle) and ignore
anti-trust laws; cut taxes on those most able to pay; and reduce
social spending on public transit, affordable housing, parks,
playgrounds, schools, hospitals, libraries, children's nutrition,
job training, and so on.  This deliberate restructuring of the
economy (the low-wage, high-waste option) was well under way
before the Republican electoral victory last November, which
merely accelerated the process without fundamentally changing it.

As we have discussed previously (REHW #409 and #451), this
low-wage, high-waste option is only benefitting the wealthiest
10% of the American people --with the vast bulk of benefits going
to the wealthiest 2% --while the remaining 90% of Americans have
seen their incomes stagnate or shrink, their opportunities
diminish, their sense of security vanish.  In the midst of the
wealthiest economy the world has ever known, poverty is
increasing steadily even among people who are working full-time;
the number of working people with health-care benefits and
retirement plans is dropping; children, particularly, are being
devastated.  Clearly we cannot simply "grow" our way out of these
problems (as both the so-called "conservatives" and the liberals
assure us we can) --we've had more-or-less-steady growth for 30
years, during which time these problems have only worsened.  The
political system offers up a brand of so-called "conservatism"
guided by the principle, "Winner take all, and let the devil take
the hindmost."  These "conservatives" insist that unregulated
markets should make all important decisions, without control by,
or accountability to, those whose needs the economy supposedly
serves (the American people).

In contrast the political system offers up "liberals" who
increasingly have no clear constituency and no clear program.
History has shifted and they have not kept pace.  Traditionally,
their approach has been to fix problems by creating government
programs.  But such fixes cost money and increasingly the white
middle class doesn't see the benefits of government programs, and
so refuses to pay for them.

The old New Deal style of government promised to counteract the
market's worst tendencies with an affirmative state committed to
full employment; a fair distribution of income; and an efficient
provision of essential public goods (schools, libraries, transit,
etc.).  In New Deal times, government policy, aided by unions,
sought to stabilize mass demand which gave companies markets for
sales and thus gave them reason to invest, which raised
productivity and lowered the costs of mass consumption goods
bought by ever-better-paid workers.  The damage to the
environment from such mass production-and-consumption was
ignored, and so was the fact that women almost exclusively (and
without pay) provided all the social glue by raising children,
maintaining traditional families and stable communities, and thus
conserving culture.

Specifically, we used to have a nation-state capable of managing
the economic environment within its territory, a national economy
sufficiently insulated from foreign competitors that the benefits
of demand-stimulus could be reliably captured by firms within its

Furthermore, the core of the economy used to be organized into a
system of mass production dominated by lead stable firms (GM, GE
and so on). The size and stability of these firms made them ready
targets for worker organization and made them operate like
levers, extending the benefits of organization throughout the
economy.  The organization of production within these firms
tended to reinforce class solidarity --working on the assembly
line, it wasn't too hard to figure out which side you were on.

During this period, class concerns (workers vs. owners) dominated
the politics of equality.  The effects of 400 years of racial
exclusion were largely ignored.  The fact that women bore the
burden of unpaid labor in the home was largely ignored. The
environmental effects of a mass consumption society were largely

Now, however, conditions have changed.

** There are sharper limits on the capacity of the state to
promote the general welfare.  These limits stem partly from
globalization, which allows quick foreign competitors to capture
expanding domestic markets, and which makes it easier for firms
with international operations to avoid unfavorable tax or
regulatory regimes.  But to an even larger degree, the new
conditions stem from changed demands on the state --demands that
the "all thumbs and no fingers" state is not well-equipped to
handle: for example, demands to (a) ease labor market transitions
as certain kinds of jobs disappear and others appear; or (b) help
firms modernize; or (c) fill social gaps created when women leave
the home to work, or when companies abandon communities; or (d)
develop common standards which then must be applied in diverse
contexts (for example, occupational safety and health); or (e)
promote political deliberation when money and sound bites have so
completely replaced people and argument that discussion itself
seems a waste.

** Traditional mass production, with its core of large firms, has
collapsed.  As this collapse has occurred, the white male working
class has been displaced as the main focus of struggles for
equality.  The class struggle (workers vs. owners) has shifted to
new arenas --race, gender, environmental and economic justice,
and so forth.  Increased competition among firms has produced
many responses (for example, simply paying workers less and
demanding more; leaner, more efficient, production; high-skill
strategies aimed at product distinctiveness) --but all of these
responses disrupt the common experiences that formed the basis of
traditional industrial unionism.  Firms are now more
decentralized and varied in the terms and conditions of work they
offer. Career paths and rewards are more jumbled, and varying
skill-requirements provide further divisions.

The male working class has fragmented at the same time that women
have joined the work force in large numbers, complicating the
task of workplace organizing, and bringing into focus the costs
of raising children, maintaining traditional families and stable
communities, and conserving culture --costs that used to be
hidden in the home.  Now that these costs are explicit, they put
new demands on the state (which the state is not adept at
handling), and they blur the boundaries between society and
household because no one is any longer quite sure which
institutions are responsible for what.

** Within the group of people who traditionally supported
democratic ideals, many new concerns tug and pull, seeking
dominance.  Issues of gender, race, environment, income and
income distribution --all compete for political space.  Life used
to be much simpler: the working class struggle for material
improvement was the dominant theme in politics. But now there is
no dominant theme --and consequently no theme that can unify all
those who, in their own individual ways, support democratic

The trend is clear: left to its own devices, this society is
headed for truly ruinous division, inequality, and squalor for
much of the population.  To prevent that, an alternative future
needs to be described, its values declared, and sides taken for
its advancement.

This will require a sharp break with liberal politics.  While
liberals often have reasonable views about political outcomes
(some equality, some decent living standards, some personal
freedom), they are elitist when it comes to making it happen.
Liberals don't believe that people of ordinary means and ordinary
intelligence are capable of running society themselves.  (This is
the key difference between the liberal environmentalists
[represented by, for example, Environmental Defense Fund, the
Environmental Working Group, and the Natural Resources Defense
Council] and grass-roots environmental justice activists.)
Liberals typically favor the kinder, gentler administration OF
people (usually by the state), rather than BY people --people
taking action themselves through popular organization.  Liberals
are also deeply accommodating of corporate power, preferring to
mop up after the damage is done, rather than averting the damage
in the first place.

Liberalism worked for a time because its key assumptions held
true: that reasonable progress toward egalitarian ideals could be
made without challenging corporate power; that the state sufficed
as an agent of the people; that the 'natural' organization of
people (into, say, classes, or neighborhoods) assured a
multiplier on state efforts. But that world is now gone, and
liberalism is defunct.  Unless people get much better organized,
democratic politics will fail for lack of troops (think of the
health care debacle) or lack of administrative capacity (think of
what's happening inside workplaces, inside schools, and at
Superfund dumps), or for lack of ability to convene discussions
that need to occur (about race, public safety, environmental
protection, neighborhood revitalization, and so on).

A new democratic politics is needed, and it must do two things:
(1) it must articulate a social alternative to the "business as
usual" domination of public and everyday life; and (2) it must
nurture the democratic practices and organizations required to
give that alternative a fighting chance.

[To be continued next week.]

[1] These ideas find their roots in the work of Joel Rogers at
University of Wisconsin, and Joshua Cohen at Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT).  Rogers and Cohen deserve credit
for these ideas, but not blame for our bastardized version of
them.  For example, this week we have filched at length, and
without attribution, from Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, "After
Liberalism," BOSTON REVIEW (April/May, 1995), pgs. 20-23.

Descriptor terms:  wealth; income distribution; poverty; urban
decay; growth; joel rogers; joshua cohen; women; race; gender;
injustice; inequality; high-wage low-waste option; low-wage
high-waste option; new deal; liberalism;

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