Monday, February 4, 2013

Times of Transition

We live in a very strange time. It is clear to many—but by no means to all—that momentous changes are taking place but it is by not what those changes are.
Here are some straws in the wind.
Both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton insisted this week that the US must remain the leader of the family of nations. We will, we must, they said, retain the leadership role that we have played since WWII. Fifty years ago no one would have disputed this. Today, unwavering commitment to our world leadership appears to be no more than whistling in the dark. Everyone knows that the days of US hegemony are coming to an end.
But we do not know what the world will look like in 30 years.
We live in a time of rapid and unexpected change. A few years ago it took some courage to come out as a gay man or woman. Today, state after state is considering making gay marriage legal; that transformation now has the blessings of the President. There is tremendous ferment in our society from conflict over guns to conflict over sexuality; many changes seem just around the corner, but the future is shrouded in darkness.
We do not know where we are going.
Not so long ago a young person who wanted to help change the world for the better could join a range of organizations on the political left. They could choose among a variety of them and choose the one whose political program seemed most promising. Today a person who wants to make it a better world—and there are many of them—has to find or invent a specific project. There are no ready made channels for political and reformative energy. There are no organizations with wide reaching political programs. There are only specific projects ranging from peace in the Mideast to recycling soda bottles to improving a specific school to banning beggars from the streets, empowering young women, or growing organic vegetables.
There is a good deal of energy for all these projects. What will be the global effect of all of them? We do not know. We do not know what the future holds or how our world is changing.
The relation between employer and employee is a difficult one because, with the exception of very small businesses with only very few employees, employers have much more power than individual employees. We have dealt with this, and so have many other countries, by allowing or even supporting workers organizing themselves in unions in order to enhance their negotiating power with their employers.
Today union membership is lower than it has been since the 1930s. Unions have little popular support, even the members are unenthusiastic. Barely more than 10% of all employees in the US belong to unions today. Are unions on the way out? Will employees once again be powerless in the face of the huge corporations most of them work for? Or are we moving in the direction of new ways of structuring labor relations?
Since 1975 or so, the US economy has been pretty stagnant. The incomes of ordinary people have remained more or less unchanged; annual growth has been a meager .3%. That's 40 years of stagnation, punctuated by occasional wild booms and the busts that inevitably follow. Is this what the American economy will look like for the foreseeable future? It is possible that "the richest country in the world" will turn to be shabby and short of funds like most countries in the Third World.
We do not know what that would be like, and what a future American economy will look like.
At one time, we had a popular democracy, a democracy where ordinary people played an important part. What people wanted counted for a good deal. The recent presidential race was financed mainly by 35 extremely rich individuals. The wishes of the people are receding into the background; we appear, more and more, to live in a plutocracy – the rule of the rich.
Will there be democracy in name only 50 years from now or can we save our political system?
Momentous changes into a future we do not know and, at the moment, do not understand seem to be taking place.
Only one thing seems clear: the future will be quite different from our past.