stalactites versus stalagmites at the end of history


There was a fad, in the eighties, for comparing the French Revolution unfavorably to the American Revolution. In that illwind of a decade, the reasoning was reliably coldwar-ish: the French Revolution led straight to the Gulag, whereas the American revolution led to: America!

In hindsight, and even then, one could see what was bogus about this judgment. For instance, its in your face racism. Black people simply didn’t count for the Francois Furet kind of historian. For another thing, the genocide necessary to create a white nation on the North American continent didn’t count. And finally, the judgment was really not about the Gulag, but about the great countervailing egalitarianism of the post-war years. It was that egalitarian that the cold war historians were particularly eager to dismantle.

Of course, this dismantling was never put so crudely. In fact, a synthesis between in-egalitarianism and egalitarianism was established, under the aegis of neo-liberalism. Here, the destruction of egalitarianism as a force in the political economy was coupled with egalitarianism as a civil matter. To put it in the class terms that were such a taboo in the Reagan-Thatcher-Mitterand years, the upper class – which was almost entirely white, but was also a compound of people with different sexual desires and genders – accepted a certain kind of feminism and a certain kind of gay rights; both denuded of their original, grass-roots connection with larger issues of class. This meant that feminism was reshaped to consist of “breaking the glass ceiling” for upper class women, and not at all of paying for housework, or extending socialized childcare to all reaches and pockets of society.
The civil egalitarianism borrowed the mythology of the civil rights movement, but – in a gesture of true cultural expropriation – did not borrow the color the skins involved. In 1960, in the U.S., there were almost no rich African-Americans. In 2015, according to a study produced by the Federal Reserve in St. Louis,  rich African Americans – defined as the upper one percent – made up a grand total of 1.7% of the whole.

The best model for the political economy – and the politics that has driven it - of the last forty years is that of a stalactite. Small drops have created a large pointy structure. When I was a kid, the idea was that we were in the midst of a stalagmite change – the drops were mounting from the bottom. The switch from one to the other has sort of defined my life, and billions of other lives.

This is worth thinking about when the next headline catastrophe announces itself: the union busting, rightwing Justice Kennedy resigning; children put in cages and left in the Texas heat; trillion dollar giveaways to the wealthy; the gutting of labor unions. It is trivial, but symbolically large, that the official opposition to rightwing plutocrats is very, very, very concerned that we all stay “civil”. The official opposition is almost surely in or connected to the upper 1 percent.

The overwhelming “feeling” of the last forty years has been one of “not being able to afford things.” For instance, medicare for all is a huge “budget-buster”. Which begs the question: how is it that in a society that is at least ten times as wealthy as it was in 1950, or 1960, when large social insurance scheme were put in place, we have run out of money? The answer is pretty simple: since then, the working class – in fact, every household that makes less than 250 thou a year – has run out of money. All the money is packed in the upper 10 percent, and in the upper 10 percent, it is packed in the upper 1 percent. The inequality is staggering: it is, really, ancien regime, as though the French Revolution had never happened. The experiment is running its course: a political economy in which the cultural expectation of egalitarianism are systematically attacked is one that will, eventually, have to take down even the mask of democratic practices. The idea that abortion rights are being threatened because one farty old man on the Court resigns shows a terrifying blindness to what has happened in state after state for twenty years. It is easier to get an abortion in Ireland than it is in, say, Texas or Mississippi. For working class women, abortion rights – not to speak of the vast vast array of healthcare rights – are a sort of ghost. They are dead, but they still haunt us.



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