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

Monday, December 21, 2009

It's the Beginning of Our New Age 

Last night, around 9pm, my son was watching a DVD before going to sleep for the night. Nearby, my wife was following the debate on the Senate health care bill over the Internet. Meanwhile, I tried to focus my attention upon reading Beijing Coma.

Even so, I couldn't help but overhear snippets of various speakers like Lamar Alexander, Tom Harkin and John McCain. Of course, they went on and on and on, as if the importance of their declarations rivalled those of Zeus. Brevity is not something for which Senators are known, and, from my limited exposure, they did not disappoint the expectations of the typesetters of the Congressional Record.

The most striking feature of the debate, though, was the mendacity on display by representatives of both parties. Alexander, smooth and polished as always, maligned the bill for provisions that, if included in a bill directed towards the desk of a President Bush, Romney or McCain, he would have enthusiastically supported. McCain, apparently embarrassed by this, focused upon Obama's embrace of secrecy in the negotiations that resulted in the final version, while scrupulously avoiding any substantive engagement. And then there was Harkin, the good liberal, striving mightily to put lipstick on a pig, recharacterizing a mandate to buy insurance on terms set by the insurance industry as the fulfillment of our right to health care, with a reassurance that, if it all doesn't work out, we can fix it.

All three were oblivious to the larger implications of the debate and its outcome. The passage of the health care bill in the Senate is one of the five most important congressional events of the last 20 years, with the others being the narrow passage of the resolution authorizing the Gulf War in 1991, the passage of NAFTA in the face of overwhelming public opposition in 1994, the late 2002 passage of the authorization of force resolution paving the way for the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, and, of course, the October 2008 bailout of the global financial sector. Each of these actions reflected a further dimunintion of the institution's ability to respond to public sentiment during its deliberations, with an accompanying increase in public dissatisfaction. Each also, not coincidentally, also reflected the the marriage between neoliberal economic policy at home with military expansionism abroad.

No doubt, Gaius is correct, the purpose of the Senate, as opposed to the House, is precisely this, to ensure that the majority does not infringe upon the perogatives of elites, but it was never supposed to be this blatant. Accordingly, we are now entering uncharted territory, a period that will be marked by intense populist eruptions against politicians and the government more generally. Liberals, seeing over the horizon, are already in disarray, with Jane Hamsher of firedoglake extending an olive branch to those willing to work with her on specific issues of concern, while Kossacks appear horrified at the prospect of people marching upon the iron triangle in DC with pitchforks. In any event, the notion that Democrats, and by extension, existing establishment relationships, can survive by saying that this health care bill is just the beginning of a larger generational enterprise is ludricrous. Instead, the bill is the last straw for a populace enraged by a government that perpetually socializes the needs of the wealthy while privatizing those of everyone else.

Or, to put it more colorfully, the earthquake at the bottom of the Pacific has already happened, it cannot be reversed, and the only questions remaining are where the tsuanami will strike and the severity of the devastation. Liberals are especially alarmed, because, after having rejected several opportunities in the last 20 years to harnass populism, they are now synonymous with the militaristic plutocracy that runs the country, and, indeed, much of the world, despite, paradoxically, having periodically expressed opposition to some aspects of US foreign policy. Much of the liberal discourse that one encounters at places like DailyKos entails distinguishing liberals as better educated, more rational and less prone to superstitution and bigotries than those who do not agree with them. Needless to say, there is little to support this perspective, but it does have the effect of isolating them for much of the American public.

Most importantly, they have willingly distanced themselves from the everyday economic problems of people, as noted by Sam Smith the other day:

Most of all, however, Obama represented a triumph of a generation of liberals dramatically different from their predecessors, most markedly in their general indifference to issues of economic as well as ethnic equality.

This heavily professional liberal class never once - in the manner of their predecessors of the New Deal and Great Society - took the lead in pressing for economic reforms. It wasn't that they opposed them; they just never seemed to occur to them.

They, after all, had risen in status even as much of the rest of the country was slipping. Over a quarter of a century passed and the best the liberal Democrats could come up with was to slash welfare and raise the age for Social Security.

Obama was the epitome of this new generation: well educated, well connected and well toned in rhetoric. But far distant from the concerns of so many.

Most of us out here in the real world recognize this, even as people in DC do not. Hence, the argument that we will only get worse from the Republicans if we do not turn out for the Democrats in future elections, no matter how odious we find the prospect, has no resonance. People feel defensiveless in the face of a neoliberal onslaught in which members of both political parties participate. There is no political comprehension of the scope of the failure of the Obama economic program, a program in which millions remain unemployed, millions continue to have their homes foreclosed and millions, despite this economic distress, now find themselves handed over to the insurance industry through a requirement that they purchase health insurance.

Through Obama, the Democrats have finally succumbed to the neoliberal state just as it is about to be repudiated. They, not the Republicans, are going to get blamed for the ruthless restructuring of the economy that they are allowing transnational finance to impose upon us. Conversely, the Republicans are going to harvest a bushel of populist votes next fall, as they cynically play the game of serving as a vessel for discontent that will allow them to return to power. It worked for Reagan, it worked for the second Bush, and it will work yet again. But this time, will the public mood tolerate an intensification of the policies that precipitated the current crisis? I doubt it.

And, finally, some liberals get it. Hamsher, through an astute reading of the current climate, is consciously seeking to create a liberal, progressive alternative that is independent of the parties, willing to challenge anyone, Republican or Democrat, who continues to insist upon the current orthodoxy. While she will not say it publicly, she recognizes that Obama has made the old progressive blogosphere slogan, More and Better Democrats, laughable. Naturally, the reaction from many hidebound Kossacks was arrogant and insulting. Hamsher understands that not only liberalism, but the legitimacy of the government itself, are in peril, and that it is essential to slip the establishment noose. Otherwise, the right will run wild.

Will it work? That's hard to say. Liberals and Democrats often resort to fearmongering to impose strict conformity with the neoliberal orientation of the party, and, naturally, they are falling back upon it now. As a leftist, not a liberal and definitely not a Democrat, I read such dystopian alarms with care. People, even those within the tea party scene, cannot be reduced to a simple right, left or center program. Instead, it is critical, as Chomsky recently said, that the left begin to directly engage people who are experiecing severe economic distress so that they can actually improve their lives. An alternative discourse is urgently needed to counter the illusory one provided by the right.

I guess that you could say that I am suggesting a popular front program centered around class conscious economic policies and demilitarization as a means of alleviating the distress of millions of Americans, and, ultimately, billions around the world. No doubt, you consider that strange coming from someone who purports to be anarchist influenced, but the immediate necessity is to address the suffering of people and prevent it from becoming worse, much worse. There is no way to do that in the absence of a political movement that emphasizes such a perspective over party identification, while allowing for the involvement of people all across the spectrum who agree with a radical assertion of personal and economic equality.

Personally, I believe that it would be most effective in the form of a non-electoral, direct action protest movement, but that's why you have a popular front, so that liberals, Marxist-Leninists and anarchists can act in ways that they consider most appropriate. I also believe that such a movement, should it succeed, would eventually result in a dramatic transformation of the US, if not its disintegration, much as what in relation to the USSR, given the intensity of the conflict required to dismante the military-industrial complex and redirect resources towards the populace. It is, as Lou Reed sang many, many years ago, the beginning of our new age.

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