'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Incomprehensibility of Liberals for Obama 

Being a high profile Obama supporter, as Melissa Harris-Lacewell is, creates some problems of cognitive dissonance, as well as an impairment of one's ability to interpret historical events:

I often begin my political science courses with a brief introduction to the idea of "the state." The state is the entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, force and coercion. If an individual travels to another country and kills its citizens, we call it terrorism. If the state does it, we call it war. If a man kills his neighbor it is murder; if the state does it is the death penalty. If an individual takes his neighbor's money, it is theft; if the state does it, it is taxation.

To the extent that a state is challenged as the sole, legitimate owner of the tools of violence, force, and coercion, it is challenged at its core. This is why "state's rights" led to secession and Civil War. The legitimacy of the central state was challenged, then reestablished. It is also why the Civil Rights Movement was so powerful. The overt abuse of state power evidenced by the violence of Southern police called into question their foundational legitimacy. The federal government had to act or risk losing its authority as a state altogether.

Which leads us to March 2010.

The Tea Party is a challenge to the legitimacy of the U.S. state. When Tea Party participants charge the current administration with various forms of totalitarianism, they are arguing that this government has no right to levy taxes or make policy. Many GOP elected officials offered nearly secessionist rhetoric from the floor of Congress this weekend. They joined as co-conspirators with the Tea Party protesters by arguing that this government has no monopoly on legitimacy.

I appreciate the parallels to the civil rights movement drawn by the MSNBC crowd, but they are inadequate. When protesters spit on and scream at duly elected representatives of the United States government it is more than act of racism. It is an act of sedition.

John Lewis is no longer just a brave American fighting for the soul of his country- he is an elected official. He is an embodiment of the state.

There is much to admire about Harris-Lacewell, and her approach to social life and politics. In the early stages of the 2008 presidential campaign, I appreciated the way that she conducted herself in her confrontation with Gloria Steinem. She has championed the plight of the people of New Orleans since Katrina, and certainly doesn't deserve being demeaned by being described as a whore, even if she was defending the refusal of the Obama administration to release torture photographs, and believes that reconciliation is a better approach for dealing with the perpetrators than prosecution. But her recent article in The Nation about the tea party movement is one of the oddest expressions of progressive thought that I have encountered in quite some time.

Where to begin? Well, first of all, there is the unquestioning acceptance that the state's monopoly on the use of violence as a modernizing force, one that results in greater security and prosperity for all. Is she not unaware that the slave trade was facilitated by the British state and its American colonies, and then accepted and institutionalized by the US one that followed? Slavery was not part of the underground economy, it was legally accepted by both the UK and the US, and regulated by both. People could invest in slave ships, and call upon the legal system to enforce their contract rights, obtain redress against fraud and, of course, recover their property or the monetary equivalent. Indeed, the US Supreme Court acknowledged it with the notorious Dred Scott decision in 1857.

Conversely, figures like Nat Turner and John Brown acted outside the state, and, necessarily, outside the law, when they sought to induce African Americans to liberate themselves. And this is not a question of historical antiquity. Today, it is the state that criminalizes drugs and controlled substances, it is the state that incarcerates poor people and people of color in large numbers as a result and it is the state has enforced neoliberal policies that have impoverished the lower middle class and lower class, policies that, coincidentally, continue to be mercilessly implemented by the man Harris-Lacewell supported for President, Barack Obama.

Her belief that the federal government finally enforced civil rights because it would have otherwise lost its authority strikes me as implausible. Even if it had not done so, the federal government possessed the military and police power to maintain order, with the covert suppression of the Black Panthers as an example of what it would have done more broadly had it been necessary to do so. Instead, there are more prosaic explanations for the end of segregation: the rejection of it by millions of Americans in their personal lives, and a recognition by capital that integration could serve as the foundation of a new American brand with trasnational appeal that would increase its economic and cultural power at home and abroad. Just Do It with Michael Jordan and the multicultural allure of the US in Europe and Asia are unimaginable if segregation had persisted. Of course, the US may have taken on more fascistic characteristics had it persisted in preserving segregation, but it, contrary to what she says, had the power to do so.

Internationally, the picture is equally bleak. Around the world, middle class people have been increasingly proletarianized, and lower middle class ones sub-proletarianized, that is, informalized, required to work without a guaranteed minimum wage, health care or pension, without any labor protections, because of the power of the state to enforce the demands of capital. Resistance is suppressed through economic coercion, and, if necessary, through military force, all carried out through state instrumentalities. Furthermore, it is the state that now asserts the authority to seize anyone anywhere in the world and subject them to indefinite detention and torture.

But, never mind, Harris-Lacewell is worried about the Tea Party. Admittedly, there is much to find contemptible about it, many of its participants espouse beliefs that are highly objectionable and often offensive. But the notion that the Tea Party constitutes a threat to the legitimacy of the U. S. state is absurd. The Tea Party participants are not anti-state, rather they want to take control of the government at all levels in order to impose their vision of society, as muddled as it is. They would not dissolve state structures, nor would they diminish the power of the police and the military, both of which rely upon the state for resources and legal authority.

No doubt, there would be more turmoil if the Tea Party attained any significant political power, but all states experience turmoil, and to analogize such turmoil with a crisis of legitimacy such as the USSR experienced in the 1970s and 1980s is not very credible. One need only look at the intensity of violent protest that has taken place in the People's Republic of China in recent years, protest that goes far beyond the Tea Party, to understand that states can weather quite a lot of turmoil. And, more importantly, the Tea Party, much like the most radical elements within 1960s protest movements, cannot generate support with most middle and lower middle class Americans. It will soon fade, but there is no sign that the economic distress that afflects most Americans will, and that is far more dangerous than Tea Party participants.

But that's the point, isn't it? Harris-Lacewell, as an Obama supporter, can't malign him, and baldly state, as Frank Rich often does, that Obama's policies present the peril of greater and greater social unrest, unless abandoned. As with health care, where the Tea Party served as Rahm Emanuel's New Model Army for the defeat of tepid progressive demands for a public option and an overall redistributive proposal for the benefit of middle and lower income Americans, it now serves the purpose of creating a binary opposition between Obama and the Tea Party that permits Obama to continue to govern in the interests of transnational capital. One or the other: choose now. You are either with us or against us. Sound familiar?

Finally, Harris-Lacewell's contention that yelling obscenities and spitting on John Lewis constitutes sedition is, there is no other way to politely say it, bizarre. Offensive, yes, a low level battery, possibly. But sedition? Old school politicians of the days when large cities were governed by machines would have found this assertion comical, and rightly so. And, what about her statement that John Lewis was more than just John Lewis, he was, in this instance, an embodiment of the state?

Was I the only person who read this and thought, wait a minute, how can Lewis be an embodiment of the state, when the state that he purportedly represents has rejected most of his recommended policies for decades? I guess she meant it symbolically, but, even then, what makes Lewis more of an embodiment of the state than you and me? It's hard to answer, isn't it, because there isn't one. And, what is the importance of him being an embodiment of the state, anyway? Does this mean that Harris-Lacewell now considers flag burning a seditious act, too? Apparently, there is an of elitism that runs through her political thought, an elitism that contains a thread of the royalism of past centuries.

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