John Keller, in his incisive book Power in America, comments that there have been many depressions and recessions in American history, but only a few resulted in political realignment. He shows how new party formations developed following these “critical crises” (e.g. in the decade preceding the Civil War). He also shows how the center of gravity shifted in the existing parties following other “critical crises.” All along the way third party formations emerged and receded. All of these changes followed dramatic shifts in the economy from one form of production to another. The most clear cut such shift, of course, came about in the period from 1830 to 1863. At the beginning of this period through 1860, the amount of capital invested in slave labor was greater than all other capital investments. The civil war changed all that, and leading up to that was a depression in the 1830’s and the splitting of the major parties on the issue of slavery and the future of the economy. Even though the recently formed Republican Party had achieved a massive, artificial majority during the Civil War, the rapid political realignment that followed was bitterly contested. This realignment reflected the change from an agricultural society, based on Southern slavery in cotton, to an industrial society centered in the North and based (initially) on railroad production.
There is some evidence to say that we are living in a period of political realignment again. The current overture by New York’s Mayor Bloomberg is a reaction to the Tea Party, which he calls a “boomlet” no different than the Ross Perot candidacy a few years back. Michael Barbaro, in the Sept. 18, 2010 New York Times, says “The mayor [Bloomberg], who started out as a Democrat, then became a Republican and later an independent, said Mr. Obama was seeking ‘to be seen to be, if not reaching across the aisle, at least reaching out for an independent view.’”
But perhaps both Bloomberg and the Tea Party are responses to something much deeper than what either one of them are discussing. We are in the midst of an even more fundamental change than from slave labor to industrial labor. Robotic/electronic labor is superseding the role of humans in production. This new means of production is actually eliminating the category of labor-power itself. A third way of saying this: robotics is calling into question the meaning of labor power as a commodity.
The practical question which is at the root of the economic depression we are facing is the realization of profit. That is, when business invests to make a product to sell, it anticipates that it will find in the marketplace people to buy its product. The industrial boom and bust cycle has flourished and perished because of business anarchy — that is, each capitalist attempting to dominate a limited market. At the end of each bust, capital has revived and expanded, only in its enthusiasm to capture the markets they overreach the limits of what people could pay for. What is called “demand” has always been limited by geography (how many consumers in a given area) and income (how high a level of income the consumers have). Add to the latter limit a structural issue not before seen, and we have a new situation developing.
That structural issue is the emergence of a class of people ejected from the labor force, separated from their relation to capital. It is matched by the introduction into the “workforce” of a kind of labor replacing information technology which has no need for food, clothing, shelter, health care (unless you consider repair of software and hardware a health care issue), or cultural participation. These “robots” (though very few of them have the classic horror tale appearance of a Frankenstein) will not buy dinner, the latest Gucci fashions, do not need a condo by the lake, and will not go clubbing or to see Green Day on tour this year. Everyone has to reckon with this phenomenon.
The Obama administration finds itself in the worst depression in over 60 years, but it is having difficulty convincing us that it knows the way out. The Tea Party leadership is challenging the Republicans as much as the Democrats (who, despite their current majorities in both houses and controlling the presidency are ineffectual). Barbaro points out, in the NYT, that both Obama and Bloomberg are grasping about for a kind of bipartisan stability, one that is not hostile to the needs of the corporations (Bloomberg explains that Obama has angered the mayor’s big business friends):
“I feel very strongly we should not be — success should not be frowned on, and I have lots of friends, wealthy people, made a lot of money, were big Obama supporters, gave him money, raised money for him, who are not happy now,” he said.
“They all say the same thing: ‘I knew I was going to have to pay more taxes. Somebody’s got to do it, and I’ve got the money,’ ” he said. “ ‘But I didn’t expect to be vilified.’ ”
It is too early to tell what the political realignment will look like as a result of the economic transformation. Something people see in Congress and the White House that seem to run contrary to these changes is the stubborn partisanship evident in votes on, for example, health care and extending unemployment benefits. One thing is certain however: the economic changes by themselves call capitalism into question, just as the economic changes prior to the Civil War called the slave system into question. With one difference: both slavery and industrialism are systems of private property. The robot challenges the very existence of private property, as it destroys commodity relations and commodity production.
There is some jockeying taking place, but the main item on the corporate agenda is how to protect capital’s interest in the coming decades when labor power is largely not needed. As trade union power becomes more marginal, as other social organizations become more marginal, how can they maintain a mass base when the base they have always relied on — the working class — is disintegrating. We should beware of these overtures for bipartisanship, as much as we are wary of the overtly reactionary responses that want to take us back to the days of the founding fathers, a la Glen Beck. Bipartisanship is today a code word for the coming together of the corporate forces and the development of a new society, on the basis of robotics, but organized for private profit of the corporations.
That form of organization need not happen. The class of people being separated from the relations of capitalism, those dispossessed and disenfranchised, have interests contradictory to distribution of the wealth according to who pays. It is the first class of people, since the transition to the first agricultural societies 10,000 years ago, who can solve their problems only by reorganizing society in the common interest. If the introduction of robotics cheapens human labor power, making it valueless, it also liberates human life, freeing the worker from the capital relationship, opening the way to a new society. Necessity again becomes the mother of freedom.
Beware, therefore, the pinstriped and blue-jeaned peddlers of bipartisanship cajoling us with honeyed words. They speak for continued corporate lies and domination. They are the faces of friendly fascism today.