Barbara Ehrenreich: If We Are In The Death Spiral Of Capitalism…

Published online 7 March 2009.

This brief diary is meant to summarize and to call attention to Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece of yesterday in Alternet (well OK with Bill Fletcher Jr.): “If We Are in the Death Spiral of Capitalism, Can We Start Using the “S” Word?”.  And, yeah, there’s going to be some analysis here too.  As Han Solo said in Episode VI: “Hey… it’s me!”

(crossposted at Docudharma)

This is an explication and critique of Ehrenreich and Fletcher’s piece put out yesterday in Alternet.  Really, though, I think it’s fitting that old socialists such as Ehrenreich (and Fletcher seems to have signed on here) are now recognizing that it may be time to bring back the old vocabulary.  After all, the problems with the old vocabulary were never really solved: they were just forgotten.  Socialism is bad, we all said, because it’s associated with the old Soviet Union.  Those who questioned this guilt-by-association logic were dubbed “Marxists” and sent off to do eternity in Marxist academic ghettos.  There must be no socialist chatter while short-term self-interest is at stake, and it’s at stake all the time.

Well, now is a great time to think about the whole of society, and about the long term, because NOTHING is at stake in worrying about benefits and jobs that aren’t there, or about money that isn’t there.  Oh, gosh, they all said in Congress before Obama’s election, we GOTTA pass the bailout bill or the economy’s gonna COLLAPSE!  Fear!  Fire!  Foes!  When in doubt, scream and shout, run around in circles, panic!  Remember that?

So here we are.  Let’s see how the authors of this piece deal with it.

The authors start by suggesting that nobody is crowing about the “fall of capitalism” because there simply aren’t enough socialists around to make a noise.  Then they state the grim reality they think is around us:

But this time the patient may not get up from the table, no matter how many times the electroshock paddles of “stimulus” are applied.  We seem to have entered the death spiral where rising unemployment leads to reduced consumption and hence to greater unemployment. Any schadenfreude we might be tempted to feel as executives lose their corporate jets and the erstwhile Masters of the Universe wipe egg from their faces is quickly dashed by the ever more vivid suffering around us. Food pantries and shelters can no longer keep up with the demand; millions face old age without pensions and with their savings gutted; we personally are consumed with anxiety about the future that awaits our children and grandchildren.

Then, after elaborating on “how we expected socialism” but got a different world instead, Ehrenreich and Fletcher ask a rhetorical question:

In this situation, with both long-term biological and day-to-day economic survival in doubt, the only relevant question is: do we have a plan, people? Can we see our way out of this and into a just, democratic, sustainable (add your own favorite adjectives) future?

Let’s just put it right out on the table: we don’t.

Of course, nobody has a “plan” if the definition of “plan” is some kind of blueprint which tells everyone where to go and what to do.  But what Ehrenreich and Fletcher can do in this short piece on Alternet is to emphasize the failure of passive reliance on “the market” and suggest the resiliency of socialist values, e.g. communitarian self-reliance:

… the core idea of socialism still stands: that people can get together and figure out how to solve their problems, or at least a lot of their problems, collectively. That we–not the market or the capitalists or some elite group of über-planners–have to control our own destiny.

The rest of the argument, with some salutary dives into a discussion of Obama, explicates on those socialist values.


OK, now for the analysis part.  First off, nobody really believed in “market values” from the get-go.  What mattered was not “the market” but one’s own market share.  Those who complained were simply supposed to shut up and look for a job.  It was never just a matter of “values,” anyway: in the new, neoliberal, world order, everyone was (in Foucault’s words) an “entrepreneur of himself.”

Thus what has failed has not merely been “the market” as a panacea solution, demanding some new form of regulated capitalism; nor has it been the stimulus, which doubtless will grant some degree of relief to America.  What’s failed has been the neoliberal, and by extension the capitalist, concept of the human being.  People just simply AREN’T “entrepreneurs of themselves”; if they’re entrepreneurs, they’re entrepreneurs of something that actually sells, playing to a clientele which has to be pried loose from its money.  To be honest, preferably they’re not entrepreneurs; most everyone would be better off if we were all to see each individual as a part of a community of intelligent animals, needing some direct connection to the ecosystems which provide her and everyone else with the elements of survival.  We need a system where people, individual people together forming a world society, are to be viewed as stewards of the natural world.

Second, this probably isn’t the “death spiral of capitalism.”  Capitalism will limp along for awhile on “stimuli” — what it is, as I’ve point out multiple times before, is a massive failure of imagination as to how to re-create a capitalist economy.  I’m not even sure yet the elites recognize that the economy must be re-created, yet: we are applying the Band-aids now, with the diagnosis of cancer a long way off.

Lastly, we’ll need more than socialist values to get through the coming decades.  We’ll need to be actively out there cleaning up the mess the capitalist system has made, and creating a new world in which the problems of “living off of the land” are once again tackled, this time from a perspective of technological and ecological wisdom.


Thanks are due to Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr. for providing me with a great conversation piece.  No thanks to the Alternet message boards, which are peppered with waaay too many off-the-wall opinions and which take too much time and effort to access in full.


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