The report laments the retreat from the social contract (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 10-11), but it does not analyze the causes of the retreat. Accordingly, it does not see that that social contract in the USA was not sustainable. It was based in part on an arrangement between the large industrial corporations and Big Labor, in which management received exorbitantly high salaries and workers received high wages, making the prices of U.S. manufactured goods high in relation to competitors in the core and semi-periphery. It also was based on social benefits financed by state deficit spending, which could work for a period, but ultimately the level of government deficits became too great to be sustainable. And it was based, in addition, on the superexploitation of the neocolonized peoples of the semiperipheral and peripheral zones of the world-economy, which required increasingly high social control expenditures, as the peoples of the world rebelled and formed movements in opposition to the inequality inherent in these global structures. When matters came to a head, the U.S. power elite abandoned its alliance with Big Labor and the people, and it took unpatriotic and anti-popular steps in defense of itself: deindustrialization, reduced taxes, reduced government social services, extorting profits from semi-peripheral and peripheral zones, and investment in financial speculation. That it is to say, it abandoned the social contract and the popular sectors that it benefitted, when the inherent problems in the social contract became manifest.
The Opportunity America, AEI, Brookings study group, however, appears to understand none of this. Why does it have such a limited understanding and analysis? As a graduate student years ago, having encountered the fundamental differences in understanding between black scholars and white social scientists, which revealed the limited understanding of the latter, I became interested in epistemological questions. How do people arrive to the understanding that they have? Is anything approaching an objective understanding is possible? This interest led me to a study of the cognitional theory of the Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan and of the epistemological method followed in practice by Marx (See McKelvey, 1991).
As a result of this investigation, I came to the conclusion that a universal understanding, affirmed as correct from a variety of cultural perspectives, is possible. A universal understanding is not absolute or eternal, but it does have a high probability of being correct, enabling human action on its basis. However, in order to arrive to such a universal understanding, the subject (the person seeking to understand) must place the desire to know above all other desires, including one’s economic interests. In addition, the subject must be driven both to understand what is true and to do what is right. Driven by a desire to understand, the subject above all must listen to others, taking seriously their understanding. And with such a listening mode, the subject must seek personal encounter with persons from different horizons, cultures, nations, and perspectives. Historical consciousness is a component of this, for the process includes encounter with the discourses of the past, left to us in the form of the written word. Such listening and personal encounter leads to the discovery of relevant questions that previously were beyond consciousness, and this discovery leads to a deeper understanding, or even a transformation of understanding, moving the subject beyond the limited assumptions of a particular culture, nation, ethnic group, class, or gender. Especially important is encountering the perspectives from below, particularly as expressed by the leaders and intellectuals of the social movements, past and present, of the exploited classes and the dominated nations and peoples.
What are the implications of such a Lonerganian/Marxist epistemology for the issue at hand? If we look at the abandonment of the social contract from the vantage point of the working class, we see that the social contract provided concrete benefits to the working class, but it could not prevent the historic national turn. Evidently, the working class did have sufficient power to defend its interests. At its height in 1953, union membership was only 36% of all workers (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 63). Many of the unions pertained to Big Labor, which did not necessarily represent the interests of the worker; indeed, there were in the 1960s democratic reform movements within the big labor organizations. At the same time, the power elite has controlled both establishment political parties, such that the working class, either by itself or in alliance with other popular sectors, did not have a political organization to facilitate the clear and unified expression of its political will. So effective weapons of resistance were not present at the critical moment of the early 1980s. A workers’ party, socialist party, or people’s party with effective presence in public debate did not exist, and the big unions were ill prepared for the historic turn.
An understanding of the limited power of the working class in the early 1980s invites further questions. Why was the power of the working class so limited after so many years of working class movements and organizations? Did the working class organizations during the course of the twentieth century give too much emphasis to concrete gains in wages and welfare, and insufficient attention to the political power of the working class? What efforts were made in the past to empower the working class and other popular sectors? Addressing these relevant questions would have required study of Marxist, socialist, and working class organizations and debates in the USA, beginning with the last quarter of the nineteenth century. If such study had been driven by a desire to understand what is true, and not to defend particular interests, it would have led to a greater understanding of the factors that led to the limited power of the working class. Said factors include the reformist cooptation of the labor movement, supported by the accommodationist orientation of its leaders, and aided by the repression of more revolutionary elements that were seeking workers’ empowerment.
An investigation of the disempowerment of the working class by various intellectuals and leaders committed to understanding what is true and doing what is right also would have resulted in the discovery of another relevant question of global scope. To what extent were the structures of the world-system a factor in the abandonment of the social contract by the U.S. power elite? Addressing this question would have led to the heart of the matter, namely, the inherent unsustainability of the social contract, as noted above. The social contract pertained only to the nations of the North, and its material foundation was based on the superexploitation of vast semiperipheral and peripheral regions of the earth. As the superexploited peoples of the earth acquired the capacity for social movements, they generated various forms of resistance, the control or containment of which would become increasingly too costly for core governments. In addition, the benefits of the social contract were financed partially by state deficit spending, which could not be sustained in the long term. Viewed from a global perspective, we can see that the social contract was nothing more than a temporary response to a political challenge from below, and it benefitted a minority of the world’s population at the expense of the majority. It could not be sustained, either economically or politically, in the long term. It had to be abandoned, in one way or another. In response to a growing awareness of the unsustainability of the social contract during the 1970s, the U.S. power elite responded in a form that defended and promoted its short-term interests, leaving aside considerations for the well-being of the nation or of humanity, imposing its decision on the peoples of the nation and the world.
The result, however, was that the working class sensed that it had been abandoned by the political establishment of the nation. The white working class, previously for the most part in committed alliance with the political establishment, became increasingly alienated. Not having a more scientifically informed political alternative available to them, some have turned to the ultra-Right, generating a situation of crisis for the political establishment, which fears that it is losing control and that the nation is perhaps becoming ungovernable.
In response to this situation, the members of the Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings study group respond as representatives of the political establishment, seeking to restore its political and social control through concrete concessions to the working class. The members of the study group have not placed the desire to understand what is true and do what is right above all other desires, including preserving personal privileges or protecting the interests of the elite. They have not encountered persons of different cultures and perspectives, leading to the discovery of relevant questions that would challenge their assumptions and transform their understandings. As a result, they are incapable of understanding the steps necessary for a genuine renewal of the nation.
McKelvey, Charles. 1991. Beyond Ethnocentrism: A Reconstruction of Marx’s Concept of Science. New York: Greenwood Press.
Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings Working Class Study (OA/AEI/BI). 2018. Work, Skills, Community: Restoring opportunity for the working class. (Opportunity America, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Brookings Institution).