In both his blog and his book, The Long Depression, the British Marxist economist Michael Roberts has driven the point home again and again that the 2008 financial crisis can only be understood as a crisis of profitability, i.e. as a reflection of capitalism’s fatal tendency to over-invest in capital goods and thus drive labor productivity to ever greater heights while at the same time producing a growing mountain of goods that it is unable to sell. Over-investment leads to over-production, which leads to financial crisis when it becomes clear that such investments must be written off. Liquidation leads to slump as workers are dismissed and consumption plummets. But then, once the dust settles and the crisis bottoms out, capitalist accumulation resumes on a new and higher level. The “long depression” of 1873 to 1896 thus gave way to a surge of inventions such as long-distance railroads, electric trolleys and subways, the Model T, and the airplane. The Crash of 1929 gave way to Les Trente Glorieuses, the postwar golden age in which French wages rose 170 percent between 1950 and 1974 while private consumption rose 174. But now we’re seeing the great unwinding as growth slows, pay stagnates, and, thanks to “quantitative easing,” the profits of an infinitesimal few soar to unprecedented heights.
But if the financial results are clear enough, what about the political consequences? The answer since 2008 has been a series of populist revolts beginning with the Arab Spring and continuing on through Occupy Wall Street, the Automaidan uprising in Kiev, Brexit, and Trump, all reflective of a growing sense that ordinary people are suffering while certain elites – dictators, oligarchs, Wall Street shysters, Hollywood liberals, etc. – grow richer, more grasping, and more arrogant.
The latest such revolt is France’s Gilets Jaunes, or “Yellow Vests,” so called for the reflective garments that French motorists are supposed to have on hand in case of a breakdown, which thousands of protesters have adopted as their emblem. What makes the Yellow Vests especially interesting is that they’re the clearest example yet of how the profitability crisis manifests itself in everyday life.
It does so via the automobile, the mass-produced commodity that defines modern life. Mass motorization is so all-pervasive that its effects are almost beyond measure. Under its impact, corner grocery stores have given way to hangar-sized supermarkets and shopping malls, crowded slums have given way to suburban sprawl, while sidewalks have all but disappeared from much of the US for the simple reason that people no longer walk and instead drive wherever they want to go. From Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 study, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, to Riesman, Glazer, and Denny’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), about growing isolation out in the ’burbs, bourgeois society effectively turned itself inside out over the course of little more than half a century, and, more than any other commodity, the automobile is what made it possible.
But the curious thing about the car is that while it seemed to encourage a new spirit of individualism, it in fact depended on vast public inputs. Nineteenth-century railroad barons not only owned the locomotives and passenger cars, but also built the tracks on which they traveled. But auto manufacturers like Henry Ford did not build the paved highways that their vehicles required. Instead, they demanded that government build them instead. To be sure, gasoline taxes helped offset construction costs. But the shortfall has been enormous, as environmental economists discovered when they began tallying up the full range of “externalities,” or uncovered costs, in the 1980s. Turning a gimlet eye not only on highway infrastructure but other auto-related expenditures and expenses in the form of low-cost urban parking, highway services (e.g. cops and ambulances), pollution, and traffic delays, they came up with deficits in year-2000 terms of anywhere from $3.75 to $10 a gallon.
Where prices appear to hover around the $3 mark, in other words, the real cost of a gallon of gas, counting inflation, is some five or six times higher. Moreover, the picture has gotten a lot worse since Y2K. Traffic delays in major urban areas have risen by better than thirty percent according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute while average traffic speeds in midtown Manhattan have slowed to just 4.7 miles per hour, little better than a fast walk. Climate change, in which auto emissions play a growing role, is accelerating while military costs are exploding. In 2010, a Princeton University economist calculated that the Pentagon was spending roughly $600 billion a year in current dollars to firm up US control of the Persian Gulf, home to nearly half of the world’s proven oil supply, while the invasion of Iraq, as Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes remind us, will likely add $3 trillion more to the tab. If you divide those costs among the 140 billion or so gallons that US citizens consume each year, then the per-gallon deficit rises to $20 or even more. Americans are racking up astronomical costs for the privilege of sitting in traffic.
This is over-production at its most tangible. The more cars roll off the assembly line, the more unprofitable each one becomes. But with half of all companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average tied up in one way or another with auto manufacturing, capitalism can’t afford to say no. Instead, it must ramp up production while shunting the cost onto larger society. Damage mounts in the form of Middle East wars, climate change, terrorism, and political breakdown. The more it piles up, the less society seems to work.
Which brings us back to the Yellow Vests, an immense protest movement growing out of mounting social dysfunction. The movement started when President Emmanuel Macron dared to raise fuel taxes in an effort to rein in highway demand. When he dug in his heels and vowed not to back down, crowds responded by rampaging through Paris and blockading roundabouts out in the hinterlands. Again and again, protesters gave voice to the same complaints. Taxes are rising while income falls. Green reforms make no sense when ordinary people are up against the wall. One protester said he had no choice but to drive because he lives 35 minutes from the nearest train station. Another sneered that officials are increasingly out of touch. “The citizens have asked for lower taxes, and they’re saying, ‘ecology,’” he snorted. Léon Crémieux, a member of the New Anticapitalist Party, a spinoff of Alain Krivine’s rudderless Revolutionary Communist League, reports that of 17 million French commuters, eighty percent have no choice but to drive: “even in the Paris region, only one in two employees uses public transportation to go to work.”
French workers can’t afford to pay for what has become a daily necessity, just as workers can’t in America, Britain, and virtually everywhere else in the industrialized world. But there’s a problem. If fuel costs are lowered, then sprawl will accelerate, which means that workers will wind all the more dependent on the private car. Instead of living 35 minutes from the nearest station, they’ll live 45, 50, or even an hour – not because they want to, but because growing subsidization pushes them out to the periphery by driving costs up in urban centers and lowering them in the distant ’burbs. The more they stew in traffic, the more they’ll curse the government for not lowering gas prices even more.
Although people like Crémieux try to put the best face on things, the rightwing nature of such mindless road rage is impossible to ignore. Donald Trump has tweeted his approval while Marine Le Pen, Steve Bannon, and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s immigrant-bashing deputy PM, have all spoken out in support. A number of ultra-rightists have emerged in the leadership, among them a charming guy from the southern Vaucluse region named Christophe Chalençon, who is openly anti-Muslim and has called for a military-led government “because a true commander, a general, a strong hand is what we need.” “Retourne dans son pays” (“Go back to where you came from”) shouted Yellow Vests at a black motorist in the Savoy. “Macron pute à juif!” (“Macron is a Jewish whore!”) cried a protester in Paris. (Go to 4:57 for the quote.) Not surprisingly, an unofficial list of Yellow Vest demands (English translation here) calls for deporting migrants who fail to gain asylum, strengthening French language laws, lengthening presidential terms from five years to seven, and instituting a hare-brained scheme for a system of popular referenda that moneyed interests will find all too easy to manipulate.
A rightwing drift is inevitable because rather than challenging the vast giveaways that keep auto manufacturers and oil companies afloat, the movement can only call for more. Comparisons have been made, appropriately enough, to the 2013 bus fare protests in Brazil, which undermined Dilma Rousseff and paved the way for Jair Bolsonaro; to the Automaidan in early 2014 Kiev, in which ultra-rightists played a growing role; and to the Five Star Movement in Italy, which also started out as amorphously anti-establishment but has since veered off in a more and more xenophobic direction. Instead of leftwing solutions, populist eruptions like these are part of a growing political dynamic that is pushing bourgeois society ever farther to the right.
The process is even more advanced in America where an ultra-conservative occupies the Oval Office and the only way Russophobic Democrats know how to challenge him is from the right. Rather than steering government back to the center, separation of powers, checks and balances, and the rest are driving it in an ever more authoritarian direction. The “solution” to Trump has become part of the problem, which is why the process seems to be accelerating.