[Marxism] blog post: interview with mike whitney

MICHAEL YATES mikedjyates at msn.com
Fri Oct 30 20:52:30 MDT 2009

Full at http://blog.cheapmotelsandahotplate.org This is an interview with me and Fred Magdoff


1. Mike Whitney---In your new book, "The ABCs of the Economic Crisis: What Working People Need to Know", you allude to right wing think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, which promote a "free market" ideology. How successful have these organizations been in shaping public attitudes about capitalism? Do you think that attitudes are beginning to change now that people understand the role that Wall Street and the big banks played in creating the crisis? 

Michael Yates: Corporate America began to wage what turned out to be a one-sided war against working people in the mid-to late-1970s, when it became apparent that the post-World War Two "Golden Age" of U.S. capitalism was over. As profit rates fell, businesses began to develop a strategy for restoring them. This strategy had many prongs, and one of them was ideological, that is, a struggle for "hearts and minds," to use a military term now being applied to Afghanistan. The presumed failure of Keynesian economics, marked by the simultaneous existence of escalating inflation and unemployment, gave the ideological struggle its foundation. Maybe there had been too many restrictions placed on the market, and these restrictions (minimum wages, health and safety regulations, laws facilitating union organizing in labor markets; public assistance in the form of money grants, housing subsidies, and the like; restrictions on the flow of money internationally) had led to results opposite those that liberal Keynesians had thought most likely. If these complex arguments could be tied to simple cliches, like "get the government off our backs," "the unions have gotten too powerful" (with always a hint that they are too radical thrown into the argument), and "welfare queens" (with that always popular whiff of racism), they could provide ideological cover for what was really a matter of corporate economics, namely the making of money.


This ideological attack bore fruit quickly. President Carter appointed Paul Volcker to chair the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and Volcker, under the guise of fighting inflation, immediately began to snuff the life out of working class communities by forcing interest rates up to nearly 20 percent. Today, Volcker is treated like a hero by Democrats and above reproach (though ignored by President Obama’s more right-wing economic advisors), which shows just how far to the right economic discourse has moved. What Carter began, Reagan completed, firing the Air Traffic Controllers and putting the nail in labor’s coffin. Behind the scenes in all of this and growing in strength for the next twenty years (funded by wealthy business leaders) or so were the right-wing think tanks you mention. Just as retired generals go to work for military contractors and defeated politicians become lobbyists, government economic advisors get jobs at Heritage or the American Enterprise Institute or the Cato Institute. The staffs of these ideological centers churn out endless position papers and studies, which find their way into our newspapers and the offices of our congresspersons. A gigantic network of professors, journalists, politicians, lobbyists, and, today, a television network (Fox) bombard us with right-wing propaganda. That all of this has been successful is seen by the fact that the shibboleths of neoliberalism—such as the needs for privatization of public entities, the free reign of markets, the obviousness of the success of welfare reform, the evils of raising the minimum wage—are all commonplaces today.


While the public now knows that something is rotten, I am not sure that neoliberal ideas are so under attack that they will lose their sway. I think that the tenacity of these ideas owes something to the lack of an ideological alternative, which, in turn, is due to the abject failure of organized labor to provide one. For example, we need universal health care. Labor, however, has not consistently argued in favor of this or supported it at all. Now Congress is poised to enact healthcare legislation that might well be worse than the profit-driven system we have all come to hate. Labor should refuse to support this legislation, but I doubt it will. Then, when the new healthcare plans fail to deliver the goods, the right-wing will be lying in wait, ready to pounce and say, "See, we told you so. The government always makes things worse." In other words, until there is a radical ideology to replace right-wing thinking, the latter is unlikely to lose its drawing power. 


Fred Magdoff: Although these institutions were very successful, along with a number of other forces, in shaping public attitudes toward the economy, the reality of the current severe economic conditions are causing many, including some economists, to rethink their views of how "efficiently" markets function in the real world (as opposed to their ideological make-believe world) and that some different approaches may be needed. People seem to understand that the "big players" played a major role in the crisis, but most of the anger has been placed on the outrageous salaries of the top echelon. Of course, this is just "chump change" compared to the massive amounts at that are transferred to the wealthy through the speculative casino that our economy has become.

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