How abruptly the political winds have shifted. Just eighteen months ago Madison, Wisconsin erupted in outrage at the draconian assault on the labor movement by the state's governor, Scott Walker. Six months later a small band of anarchists occupied Wall Street and set off sympathy occupations in seventy cities around the world. Meanwhile, the "Arab Spring" promised to overturn the despotisms ruling the Middle East. The streets of Europe filled up with students and labor unions and middle classes angry about being held as ransom, their livelihoods ruined, their futures mortgaged, their governments neutered, all so that the banking establishment might survive the economic devastation it had caused.
Those days seem so evanescent now. The yeoman efforts to recall Governor Walker failed miserably, a terrible blow to the labor movement especially, which may now face re-energized attempts by Tea Party politicians elsewhere to accomplish what Walker did. Moreover, it is sobering to realize that Walker's victory in part relied on significant support from working-class families, and a goodly number of union members. And the Tea Party remains the center of gravity for the Republican Party. But Occupy Wall Street is, at least as of this writing, a ghostly shadow of its former self. Little seems to have been left behind by its May Day mobilizations. The "Arab Spring" feels more like an Arab Winter as military regimes reassert their control. Elections in France and Greece highlight the polarization of European politics in response to chronic economic decline and coerced austerity. Polarization, however, has entailed not only the Socialist victory in France and support for a new left in Greece but, in those countries and elsewhere throughout Europe, the reinvigoration of the radical right as well.
Chronic economic crisis tends to move in that direction. The longer it continues, the starker the choices. And since ruling elites, abroad and here at home, either lack the imagination or the courage to break with the status quo, they rely instead on more or less stringent austerity and increasing repression. The future looks grim. The looming presidential election is unlikely to make any deep difference when it comes to changing these fundamentals. Obama has ratcheted up his populist rhetoric heading into November. However, given the debility of labor and the left, a second Obama administration will remain constrained in its efforts to make good on that rhetoric. A demobilized American public, overwhelmed by increasingly empowered corporate political actors, now defines the U.S. political terrain and, regardless of who wins the November elections, altering that landscape will pose for progressive organizations the most daunting and significant challenge. The last year and a half suggests how fluid everything is. Much may change even between this writing (mid-summer) and the fall. Whether the economy continues to submerge or implode entirely, here and abroad, matters most. Many of the articles in this issue circle around that question. One, by Jeannette Wicks-Lim, examines the state of the working poor, a population that is increasingly becoming the norm and the understructure of an economy headed backwards. David S. Pedulla looks at another chronic feature of this "new world," namely unemployment among young people. Heather Ann Thompson analyzes one of the ugliest manifestations of this "new" way of turning a profit, the exploitation of prison labor by private enterprise and the growth of the prison industrial complex. (Our "In the Rearview Mirror" column illustrates how old this practice actually is by describing the convict lease system of the nineteenth century.) These are only three signs of serious system [End Page 4] malfunction. Another, of course, is the financialization of everything, including the global economy. Jeffrey Sklansky, as part of our ongoing series on Marxism and contemporary society, explores how a Marxist approach may be a useful way to understand this, along with the persisting financial crisis.
Is there a way out of these and the associated dilemmas of global economic regression? In our "On the Contrary" feature Mark Levinson argues—against liberal economists like Robert Reich and Austan Goolsbee, among others—that there is, indeed, a future for manufacturing here at home, and without it real economic recovery can't...