Jobs, the Elections, and the Politics of Phantasmagoria and Insecurity

 196294_465.jpg
Real Clear Politics

 By Bill Barclay

On Nov. 7, three days after the 2014 midterm elections, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its Employment Situation Report for October 2014. The numbers are simple and not dramatically different from those that the Chicago Political Economy Group (CPEG) has analyzed for the past several months. 

Here are some key takeaways from the report:

First, about 214,000 new jobs were created, continuing the string of net private job creation to 56 months, a new record. 

Second, leisure and hospitality, health care and social assistance, retail trade and temporary help services – in that order – accounted for almost three of every five new jobs in October. Over the past year, these four job categories accounted for almost half of all new jobs.

Third, the unemployment rate dropped slightly to 5.8%.

Fourth, the labor force participation rate remains very low at 62.8%, although the employment/population ratio has risen by 1% over the past year.

Fifth, looking over the longer time span, the “Obama economy” has, to date, generated more than 4.5 million new jobs, vs. the “Bush economy” new job creation of 1.5 million. 

Sixth, although not part of the jobs report analysis, the federal deficit is below 2% of GDP – lower than the 40-year average.

Few of the voters in the 2014 elections could have told you any of the foregoing – and some would have vehemently denied at least the last two points.    

Why, in the face of reality - or at least some facets of reality – did the Republicans do so well (or, the Democrats do so poorly)?

Jobs and the Politics of Voting

There are doubtless multiple strands that link the jobs trends to the voting patterns of the 2014 election. I think the two most important are the politics of phantasmagoria and the politics of uncertainty

Phantasmagoria: an exhibition of optical effects and illusions; a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined.

Phantasmagoria describes a situation in which illusion dominates reality – there may, of course, be contesting illusions.  That is the goal of political campaigns – to make my illusion define your reality.  And the RepubliCONs did well by this criterion. 

The politics of insecurity can be captured from one question in the exit polls: Over 70% of voters in the 2014 elections cited concerns about the economy as the most important factor in their vote. Almost 70% of these voters cast Republican ballots.  Most of these voters would probably echo my DSA friend who said, in response to the facts of job growth and growth in the larger economy over the past few years, that he hasn’t experienced any economic recovery and hasn’t seen any gains to himself or the people he knows from the “recovery.”

Secular Stagnation?

I think both the success of the politics of phantasmagoria and the core of the politics of insecurity are rooted in the possibility that is increasingly finding a hearing: that the US – and much of the rest of the wealthy world – is facing a political economy of secular stagnation.  In such an economy the prospects for getting ahead, for bettering the lot of one’s parents, for the growth-lifts-all-boats mantra to have some semblance to reality, are called into question.  According to Thomas Piketty, this political economic path also results in increased concentration of wealth and income and poses a serious challenge to the future of democracy.  Certainly the (un)natural marriage between capitalism and democracy becomes problematic. 

There is not the space here to consider the many facets of this debate and the political implications of such an economic path.  It is, however, important to insist on one point: Secular stagnation is not an economic inevitability, not the result of some immutable economic law.  If the U.S. – or Western Europe – goes down this path, it is the result of policy choices, both those made and those not made.

Here I will return to the CPEG jobs analysis and emphasize a point often overlooked in that proposal.  Our analysis was driven not simply by the need for an extensive public sector jobs program because of growth in unemployment.  It was based on two fundamental propositions:

(1)  That the U.S. political economy is structurally unable to generate enough jobs to insure anything like full employment; and

(2)  That a jobs program should therefore be designed in a manner that seeks to transform the existing economy. 

It was based on these two propositions that the CPEG argued for living wage jobs to all willing and able to work and that this is only achievable by the use of social market policies that draws upon and expands the resources and role of the public sector.  Such a program requires a social (public) definition of the work that needs to be done and thus the jobs that should be created.  The criterion must be social utility, not private gain.  The result is a vibrant public sector that begins to define economic growth and offers desirable employment alternatives to low-wage private sector jobs.

Failing this task, there will likely be continued election-to-election swings in the U.S., with mounting distance between the desires of the electorate and the policies of the elected.  One early and, admittedly, small indication of this pattern: Consider the passage of measures such as increased minimum wage and paid sick leave and the defeat of anti-abortion measures in states that elected officials whose political positions and preferences are in conflict with these substantive proposals. 

 BilBarclayDustin_(1).png Bill Barclay is a member of the Chicago Political Economy Group and co-chair of Chicago DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

May 25, 2017
· 33 rsvps

Join DSA's Queer Socialists Working Group to discuss possible activities for the group and its proposed structure. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

What Is DSA? Training Call

May 30, 2017
· 40 rsvps

If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
· 92 rsvps

Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 26 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
· 5 rsvps

Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

  1. This webinar is free for any DSA member in good standing.
  2. You need a computer with good internet access.
  3. Your computer must have headphones (preferred) or speakers; you can speak thru a mic or use chat to "speak".
  4. If you have questions, contact Bill Barclay, chocolatehouse@sbcglobal.net.
  5. If you have technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt, schmittaj@gmail.com, 608-355-6568.

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 7 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 5 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.