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The Coming War on Inequality

SNA (Tokyo) — The Roaring 20s of the 21st century will not occur in the 2020s, but rather we are living through them now. It is booming stock markets, glitter and shine, all overlaying an economic system that is profoundly unjust, with inequality growing by the day. It’s highly unlikely that the crash will wait until ’29; rather, it should be expected much earlier in the decade, perhaps even before the 2020s officially begin. But one thing now seems clear: a war on economic inequality will be a central feature of the politics of the next decade.

Looking primarily at the United States, which will still be the world’s leading nation for some time to come, the war on inequality could potentially be led from either the political right or the political left. The crony capitalism of the existing establishment is doomed, but the identity of the hangman has yet to be established.

The main foreshocks in the 2010s have been more significant on the political right. President Barack Obama betrayed the early prospects of the left in 2009 by failing to hold Wall Street accountable in the wake of the financial crash. This paved the way for the rise of the Tea Party movement in the early 2010s, which was part-astroturf, but also part a genuine but confused and inchoate populist cry against economic inequality.

Although both the establishment and the left will be loathe to credit him, Steve Bannon led a brand of rightwing populism that might have succeeded in 2017 had Donald Trump possessed the capability of fully embracing it. Bannon’s economic plan, it will be remembered, was to begin the Trump presidency with a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan and immediately start putting money in the pockets of the working class voters who sent Trump to office.

As Bannon told Michael Wolff of the The Hollywood Reporter in an article published a year ago: “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist.” Bannon envisioned “conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”

As we now know, Bannon failed to convince Donald Trump to truly embrace his vision. At the beginning of his administration, Trump seemed to delight in balancing Bannon’s populism against establishment Republicanism. As the year progressed, it was not Bannon (regarding whom Trump quickly became jealous and insecure) but rather the most corrupt elements of Republican crony capitalism that won out.

The Republican tax bill passed near the end of last year was indicative. Not only did it reveal that the Republican Party was entirely unconcerned about the ways in which growing economic inequality was driving the American polity to a precipice, it made plain that their greed and blindness was so all-encompassing that they would gleefully step on the gas pedal.

On the left, of course, it was figures such as Elizabeth Warren and especially Bernie Sanders who were relentlessly pointing out the growing gap between rich and poor and urging the Democratic Party establishment to understand that it wasn’t the white collar “creative class” that was their proper political base, but rather the working class that had formed their popular bedrock from the time of the New Deal.

How successful has the Sanders-Warren wing been in convincing the Democratic Party mainstream ween itself from big corporate donors and to return to the people? Frankly, it remains to be seen, but most indications suggest that the Democratic Party has not yet learned its lessons.

If the Democratic Party establishment does, in fact, largely dismiss the urgency of addressing the growth of economic inequality, then the major electoral gains they are expected to make this November will be squandered shortly afterward.

One of the two major parties—the Republicans or the Democrats—will be taken over by economic populists early in the next decade. Whichever party it is, that party will be the big political winner for at least a generation.

A Republican victory would certainly be more divisive and dangerous. It would use its support from about 60% of the people to oppress the rights of the other 40%. It would impose rightwing political orthodoxies and operate something very much like a fascist state of the 1930s. That regime would probably lead to a second collapse, perhaps in the 2030s.

A populist victory from the left—which is more likely in light of the solidly progressive values of the younger generation—will probably be a more radical version of the New Deal or the Great Society, especially if there is indeed a major economic crash in the years immediately ahead.

Unfortunately, it will probably require some horrible cataclysm before the current system of crony capitalism collapses in upon itself. New orders are usually not born until old orders have thoroughly discredited themselves.

One concern that emerges is that the War on Inequality of the 2020s, like all revolutions, could easily go too far. For many people in the younger generation, crony capitalism has delegitimized the core ideas of market capitalism itself—which is a big mistake.

In the midst of crisis, the political pendulum might swing too wildly to the left and the focus could become, not a necessary and reasonable reduction of economic inequality, but a misguided revolutionary attempt to eliminate inequality itself. History shows clearly that this leads to disaster. True humanity cannot long survive the Dictatorship of Virtue.

Much of the outcome depends upon the quality of the political leadership that emerges in the next decade. Rough seas are coming our way. Let us hope that the captain who ultimately takes the wheel is more a FDR than he or she is a Mussolini or a Robespierre.

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