The Upside to the Present Recession

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

It’s hard, and it may seem cruel, to dare talk about the possibility that anything good can come out of the economic situation in which we — and the rest of the world — find ourselves. The Obama administration says things are looking up.  They have to say that, and it may be true in some sense, in some parts of the economy, and in some parts of the country.

But where I live, and in many other places, unemployment is well into the double digits and climbing.  No one is predicting jobs will be on the rebound any time soon. The administration has to act like a cheerleader because recession becomes depression when people give up hope. We can’t stop hoping that things will get better — and even get good — before too long.  If we give up, we’ve sealed our own fate, with no help from those who would like to continue to profit at our expense.

The positive aspect of what’s happening to the economy is that it’s freed us up to talk about capitalism and class, two subjects that rank up there with politics and religion as topics you don’t bring up among people whose politics and religion you’re not intimately acquainted with, unless you’re looking for trouble.

I was a working class kid who went to an Ivy League university because the mayor of the city where I went to high school, and where the university was located, gave me a scholarship to go there.  The scholarship was based on my grades, not on need. If I hadn’t been born smart, and if the boy who was first in the class hadn’t got a scholarship to MIT,  I would have been operating a punch press after graduation.

As it was, I never fit in at the university, and I didn’t understand why until half my life later.  The so-called classless society that America took so much pride in when I was growing up was as oppressive as feudalism ever was.  All that was classless about it was that nobody talked about class.

I heard plenty about capitalism as a child at my parents’ dinner table.  My Aunt Bessie, youngest sister of my maternal grandfather, in whose house we lived, was a real live Communist — with a capital C — and she drove my would-be middle class mother nuts talking about how capitalism opporessed the working class.  But that was during World War II, when I was too little to form political opinions. By the time I got to college, I’d pretty well put Aunt Bessie’s teachings in storage — until Vietnam got me thinking about a lot of things around the time I turned 30.

People these days are looking hard at where our class structure and economic structure have brought us.  I’m coming across folks who are open to ideas they wouldn’t have given a thought to a couple of years ago. Pain — the economic and emotional kind — does that to you. I’m sorry to see so many people hurting, but I’m glad to see them thinking about these things.

Here’s what some people are saying about Michael Moore’s new film, “Capitalism: A Love Story.” From the Huffington Post:

Michael Moore has made the most important and urgent political film of our time. In fact, he might have made the most American of films since the populist cinema of Frank Capra.” (Read the rest of this excellent piece, “Michael Moore’s Grapes of Wrath,” by clicking here.)

That’s not too surprising.  HuffPo is hardly a right-wing shill.  But then there’s this:

Some conservatives are also saying they love the film and are telling people to go see it [Moore’s film, that is]: E.D. Hill from Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Post. Even Jim Pinkerton, White House staffer under both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush said, “I’ve got to tell you, on this particular issue, I’m with Michael Moore.” This is amazing. Plus, having the mainstream support of people who speak to middle America, like Jay Leno and Merle Haggard — this has truly become a movie that has reached its hand out and said “please come in, I think you might appreciate knowing some of the things I’m going to show you.” If there was ever a time to take your Republican brother-in-law to a Michael Moore film, this would be it!

The movie made me laugh through my tears, and cry through my laughter. It’s good to get emotional about what capitalism is doing to us — with its devotion to greed, competition, and the myth that anyone can get rich if only s/he works hard enough. For generations, we’ve bought into the so-called American Dream.  Now we see it for what it is — cowflop.

“I refuse to live in a country like this,” says Moore near the end of his movie, after having told us of people who lost their jobs, their pensions, their health insurance, their homes. “And I’m not leaving,” he adds, calling on us to join him in making things different.

For the great majority of Americans, our earnings have stayed flat since the 1970s, while corporate profits and executive pay have increased astronomically. The gap between rich and poor has become a chasm. And when it came about that working class and middle class people could no longer afford the stuff that made the corporations grow fat, along came credit cards to lead us into debt so we could continue to buy and dream we were rich. That, in a nutshell, is why we’re in the soup these days.

All of this becomes clear if you get to know Richard Wolff’s work.  He’s an economics professor recently retired from the University of Massachusetts.  Like Moore, he’s out to get us up off our hind ends, taking charge of our economic lives.

Wolff has the whole festering mess laid out for us in a book and video entitled Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It. You can watch the 57-minute video (Wolff is a kid about my age, so he calls it a movie) on his web site, if you don’t mind the superimposed words “For Preview Only” through the whole thing.  I don’t blame him for this. He wants you to buy it, and if you can, you should. It deserves to be seen at community centers and churches and schools and libraries across this country.  He explains what’s been done to us — and what we can do back.

Professor Wolff is on the road with his talk.  You can find his schedule on his web site. I saw him at Greenfield Community College in Western Massachusetts a couple of weeks ago. He’s also on the radio.  If you put in just a bit of effort, you can develop a new understanding of so much that’s going on these days.

I’ll be back on Thursday with more about capitalism — this time in relation to climate change. See you then.

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6 Responses to “The Upside to the Present Recession”

  1. […] peace prize The Associated Press Reader Question: Obama’s Prize Money New York Times The Upside to the Present Recession – 10/10/2009 By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson It’s hard, and it may seem cruel, […]

  2. […] Read the rest here: The Upside to the Present Recession […]

  3. There’s a capital C in every lefty leaning family, I think. And they were not always understood by other family members.

    Mine was my late Uncle Karol. He worked his entire life making firearms and was a union man but felt strongly that the union let him down in many ways by their credo about companies making big profits so they could “negotiate” better wages.  He felt that if the workers contributed to the profit no negotiating should have been necessary.  His core belief was that capitalism was designed to oppress.

    He was a registered Democrat to the day he died but always said he was a Socialist so I guess he was more a capital S? 

  4. What are costs for scoring state tests? Do school districts bear them? We could save money by eliminating these tests that teachers simply teach to instead of teaching for a well-rounded education. Then maybe we’d have a new generation of good citizens instead of robots with no feeling out there. That is what we think would help the economy.

  5. One of your more interesting posts, Miryam. But will you write about this one more? I sense you have a lot more to say about the economy and the effect on average Americans.

  6. Thank you for mentioning Alpha-Stim in your book on fibromyalgia. Every day people tell me it has “changed their lives”. Today a patient made me promise that I’d contact you somehow to say thanks. Even the docs prescribing it don’t really understand why, but Alpha-Stim treatment seems to go right to the core of so many pain and sensitivity problems.  

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