American society seems to be driven by indomitable optimism. Everyone is a blacksmith of his own happiness, and the myth of the newspaper boy who ends up as a multimillionaire contributes to the work.
But in recent years, serious cuts have been made in the American dream. Ordinary people are getting harder and harder to bring the economy together, and political phenomena like the Tea Party movement and the Green Party are clear signs that thinking is changing. And not least, the significant interest surrounding Bernie Sanders and his "soft socialism" is an indication of a beginning break in the classic two-party system. The Republican Party has been invaded by Donald Trump, and the Democrats have embarked on an economic course that – like the time Tony Blair's New Labor reigned in Britain – benefits most of the elite.
The miracle of the United States
This is among the firm conclusions Alan Nasser reaches in his new book Overripe Economy. American Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy. Nasser, a professor of political economics and philosophy emeritus at The Evergreen State College, Washington, offers both a progressive and provocative analysis of growing social inequalities and democratic decay – and he does this through a detailed reading of capitalism's path through American history.
In 396 months from 1867, American capitalism was shaped. In just 199 of these, the economy grew; in 197 it was in crisis.
The author traces the development all the way back to the time when the major technological landslides were, in common opinion, laying the groundwork for America's economic miracle. The best example is probably the railroad. In 1869 coast-to-coast rails were laid, and towards the end of the century the country had the most branched rail network in the world.
But the Americans' high-sung ideal of freedom and a near total lack of central government gave it a dark side. Indeed, investments were made to the extent that there was soon a huge overcapacity, which led to an endless series of bankruptcies. By 1876, almost half of all railroad shares were virtually worthless, and when the bottom fell out of the market, it led to mass fires and squeezed wages.
The hunt for profit
Another sacred cow that Nasser slaughters is the story of Henry Ford and the assembly line. In the post-World War I era, American industry switched to civilian production, and precisely the famous T-Ford has come to stand as the major democratization of private traffic. All models came in the same black color, the technique was simple, and the production costs at bottom. But the truth lies somewhere else. On the one hand, the author claims that Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line at all, but only used existing technology, and on the other, he argues that the main aim was to increase personal profits. The modern industrial production made it possible to employ unskilled workers who were so poorly paid that they would never be able to afford a car themselves.
Thus, the alleged democratization already led to deeper social differences. Moreover, the ideal of freedom and ingrained individualism had stood in the way of the solidarity that characterized the working class in Europe. The Americans had never had a strong trade union movement that could protect the rights of the little man, and especially during the crisis of the 1930s, the authorities brutally cracked down on any pretext for popular protest.
It has never come across a pervasive solution. The great economic prosperity after World War II and the belief in American infallibility made people move out into the suburbs and live happily in the present. Why worry about the future when things are going well?
The assembly line was not Henry Ford's invention at all – he only used it to increase his personal profit by hiring unskilled workers.
Then the disaster hit the financial crisis and the economic downturn. The housing bubble burst, and in a society where unrestrained capitalism had long set the agenda, no politician was ready to slow down the needy people in the fall. Many observers trusted Barack Obama as president. He made dramatic promises to end the war in Afghanistan, shut down Guantánamo, give workers the freedom to join a union, end the wealthy group's huge tax benefits and recover the solid middle class. None of this came to an end. But Obama lobbied for the famous one percent – as did Clinton and most of the other political leaders.
The people wake up
In the middle of the long jeremiade, however, there is a bright spot. The author goes new ways by identifying the so-called Arab Spring as a global trend. Of course, the book did not include the social protests in Paris in December 2018, but it is very similar to, for example, the Brazilian protests against the huge expenses of the 2014 World Cup soccer – and then of course there is 2012, when the Chicago teachers strike. They objected to poor working conditions and low wages, and as something quite unusual it became a local community concern. The teachers received support from parents and other professional groups in the city, and their strike became a compelling reason why Rahm Emanuel was only re-elected as mayor of the city in 2015 on a hanging hair.
The period from 1867 to 1900 can be termed the formative era of American capitalism. But in these 396 months, the country's economy was in crisis in 197, while the result of the other 199 showed growth. This was the result of an over-matured economy and uncontrolled capitalism, and in principle, these are exactly the same problems Americans are struggling with today. The only difference is that the Americans are now, in the long run, looking into the truth and have seen the established politicians. Therefore, Chicago 2012 became an important landmark, as a strike that became something more. The trend that Alan Nasser sees is that the struggle is about more than wage differences and social inequalities: the desire for a deeper change in society.