Perry Anderson has a good piece in the most recent New Left Review contextualizing the Obama administration in the broader sweep of postwar U.S. politics. It provides an account of the economic factors that I more or less bracketed in my post on the U.S. as a “party-state,” advancing the sensible position that the reason the two parties can so often switch positions, etc., is that there is no ground for a more fundamental disagreement, given that all significant political actors in the U.S. are 100% on board with capitalism.
One thing that stood out to me was the oft-forgotten fact that it was actually Carter who began implementing the neoliberal turn. Yet only Reagan could really carry it through, insofar as the Democrats were tarred with their association with the failed postwar settlement, over which they had mainly presided. Coming as I do from Michigan, where the transition from Fordism to neoliberalism produced a particularly brutal change in fortunes, I’ve often been nostalgic for Fordism — and nostalgic in the proper sense of missing what I’d never experienced, given that I was literally born in the year Reagan was elected and Roger Smith of Roger and Me fame became GM’s CEO — and had fantasies of how it could have been saved (specifically, union contracts should have been pegged to core inflation, not headline inflation, so that stagflation could have been avoided!). Perhaps my fascination with the Soviet Union stems from the same source.
In any case, I keep returning to Hardt and Negri’s claim in Commonwealth that neither neoliberalism nor the welfare state can actually direct and organize production — they both rely on syphoning resources from production that is just presumed to happen somewhere, somehow. The situation may not be quite so bad with Fordism and the Soviet command economy, because it’s hard to deny that they organized production on a massive scale, yet there may be a related problem at work insofar as both saw their chosen priorities (heavy industry and consumerism, respectively) become ends in themselves, divorced from whatever goals or promises had originally legitimated them. The USSR was never able to turn the corner and make the economic apparatus serve the consumer rather than demanding endless sacrifice — though the discovery of oil papered over this for a while. In the U.S., we continued to build suburbs and highways and new houses even when the economic underpinnings of the postwar boom had disappeared. The suburban lifestyle, which in the years of high Fordism was already recognized as a recipe for boredom, isolation, and despair, has transformed increasingly into a recipe for financial ruin for many who have aspired to it. But hey, it’s what we’re supposed to do!