December 23, 2009

Politics for Losers



At what point, I wonder, does political demoralization and outrage lead to a more engaged and informed activism? Despite the ire these days from netroot progressives I still wonder whether such proverbial line exists at all. Will the anger and frustration simply dissipate amidst eventual calls for party unity? Will we – despite all our raucous griping at the moment – come around to our electoral senses, and accept the measly, and ultimately failed, “reforms” afforded by the feckless, craven, and compromised?   

I have an uncomfortable feeling that the bourgeois freedom escape from political engagement which remains so much at the heart of everyday American life as a whole, as well as in the genealogy of its ideological underpinnings in classical liberal political theory, will only lead – at least for grumbling liberals – to more political disappointment. As a general truism, insofar the longing for “happiness” is looked for in realms other than politics, and in the realm of the “private” sphere of consuming goodies and treats, people will remain hopelessly estranged from – and at times be even hostile to – efforts to politicize everyday worldly experience. And given the shape of political and economic institutions these days the long-term consequences of this escape from political life will continue to be fatal.           

Right now, from the perspective of liberals and progressives, it seems that the sole motor of political change happens to be the one embodied in the dynamics of a dysfunctional machine which somehow still manages to set the terms and agenda for Change and Reform. What the vast majority of people in the country actually experience as failure, obstruction, and even crisis, still cannot seem to disrupt – much less mend – the perpetual sputtering of this broken machine. Of course, some still manage to reap enormous profit from the “system,” and have a vested interest in keeping it kaput. Further, their ability to appropriate the politics of Change and Reform translates into their effective control over the definition of acceptable risks, costs, consequences, injuries, and damages…the systematization of loss.      

Thus consider a politics for losers....

So much of today is indeed defined by loss – loss of life, loss of money, savings, and livelihood, loss of employment, loss of place, and loss of hope. While finding meaning in these personal and political losses has become almost a way of life perhaps we can become more politicized from our losses rather than continually digress in excuses to comfort our grief, disappointment, and ressentiment. Actually, the experience of loss is not simply a negation or vacuous state of anomie but a veiled surface or crudely healed scar incurred from some removal, or trauma, that will forever remain – like it or not. Like Achilles’ shield taken into battle which has etched into it the social world he cannot take part in but which he continually fights for – loss can be something we take into battle and move us to action provided we accept our losses as losses instead of covering them over with convoluted and dishonest rationalizations which only comfort out weakness.

In short, it is only by facing up to the political realities of issue-after-issue betrayal by Obama and the Democrats, i.e., our losses, that we can begin thinking about how best to gain our bearings, and go about flexing our political muscle. Of course, all this also implies rediscovering a political breaking point as well getting back our courage – our passion to live even. It means celebrating our power and creativity as engaged beings rather than as those who compromise with the feckless and craven. What this ultimately comes down to is whether we will continue to cling to broken institutions which continue to shut us out and tell us to compromise while technocrats wonk away to push an inch or two OR whether we start mobilizing en masse for ourselves. Populism! It’s the only way real pressure for real change is possible!

Otherwise, fuck the Dems! If they lose in the 2010 midterm elections they will have only themselves to blame! As a party, they have it quite clear change-we-can-believe-in will NOT happen without ordinary people forcing more of a fight. Yet regardless of what happens in the midterms progressives will still have plenty of crises and opportunities to rally around! And, besides, even if Democrats do not lose seats in 2010 will anything Change anyway??

You see, what we need at this point is a new Realism which does not so much temper our activism but instead spurs it! We must let go of our infantile wishes for the well-intentioned soul of Barack Obama. He will not save us, he will not deliver. Believing he will or even intends to without being forced to deliver only encourages passivity. As I stated less than a week ago, what moderates simply do not grasp is the depth and nature of the problems facing the world. Indeed we are at those rare moments in history when the radical has become pragmatic, and when compromise, concessions, and the whole bi-partisan structure courts disaster. The question is not what can be done but what must be done.

2010 is a good time as any to start.

December 20, 2009

Getting to Higher Ground

How ironic that Obama allegedly left Copenhagen due to “the weather” only to fly back to this weekend’s blizzard in DC. As this interview between spokespersons for Greenpeace USA and the Brookings Institution demonstrates, the actual political message taken away from the Copenhagen summit should be quite clear. (Passing   remarks from the interviewer at the end just about sum it up.)

More at The Real News

Or simply consider these words by Naomi Klein from Harper’s, October 2007.
“Wealth already provides an escape hatch from most disasters…..
Perhaps part of the reason so many of our elites, both political and corporate, are so sanguine about climate change is that they are confident they will be able to buy their way out of the worst of it. This may also partially explain why so many Bush supporters are Christian end-timers. It’s not just that they need to believe there is an escape hatch from the world they are creating. It’s that the Rapture is a parable for what they are building down here on Earth – a system that invites destruction and disaster, then swoops in with private helicopters and airlifts them and their friends to divine safety.”  

December 18, 2009

Creeping Corporatism and the Proverbial Line in the Sand

From Shadow of the Hegemon comes this passage:

“Obviously the Dems are never, ever going to have a line that they won't cross, because they're terrified of the possible consequences. But that's why they supported the Iraq debacle, too, in all its destructive horror. The LieberCare hawks are primarily the "Liberal hawks" of 2002-2003. Have they learned anything? Have they changed at all?

IS there a line?”

And from Glenn Greenwald, another insightful article appearing in today’s Salon posted here in full. Don't forget to read my commentary below, I think I may be a genius!

“Ed Kilgore has a very perceptive analysis in The New Republic about the underlying (and largely unexamined) ideological and strategic differences among progressives that are at least partially driving the rift over the health care bill.  He argues -- correctly -- that the current debate "displays a couple of pretty important potential fault lines within the American center-left" that have manifested in other disputes as well.  That was the principal point of this much-maligned Daily Kos post observing that many (but not all) of the progressive bloggers most vehemently demanding passage of the health care bill also supported the Iraq War.  As the author of that post (Jake McIntyre) explicitly said, his intent wasn't to suggest that those individuals shouldn't be listened to because of their Iraq position six years ago (that would be an invalid and unfair claim), but simply that -- as Kilgore says -- there are underlying and significant differences in strategic and ideological outlook driving the health care debate that have been present for some time but are typically ignored.

Shared contempt for the Bush administration (at least once Bush and the Iraq War became discredited) largely obscured these differences when Bush was in office.  The desire to undermine the Bush GOP and dislodge that movement from power subsumed all other objectives and united people with vastly different political outlooks and agendas.  There is still a shared revulsion towards the Palin/Limbaugh Right, but that faction is too marginalized and impotent to serve the same function.  With the unifying force of Bush/Cheney gone, the divisions Kilgore describes are now vibrant and increasingly potent.  In addition to health care and Iraq, roughly the same progressive fault lines are seen over the bank bailout, escalation in Afghanistan, Obama's economic team, tolerance for Obama's embrace of Bush/Cheney civil liberties polices, and even the reaction to Matt Taibbi's recent Rolling Stone article on Obama's subservience to Wall Street.

There are many reasons for the progressive division on the health care bill.  There are differences over the narrow question of health care policy, with some believing the bill does more harm than good just on that ground alone.  Some of it has to do with broader questions of political power:  if progressives always announce that they are willing to accept whatever miniscule benefits are tossed at them (on the ground that it's better than nothing) and unfailingly support Democratic initiatives (on the ground that the GOP is worse), then they will (and should) always be ignored when it comes time to negotiate; nobody takes seriously the demands of those who announce they'll go along with whatever the final outcome is.  But the most significant underlying division identified by Kilgore is the divergent views over the rapidly growing corporatism that defines our political system.

Kilgore doesn't call it "corporatism" -- the virtually complete dominance of government by large corporations, even a merger between the two -- but that's what he's talking about.  He puts it in slightly more palatable terms:

To put it simply, and perhaps over-simply, on a variety of fronts (most notably financial restructuring and health care reform, but arguably on climate change as well), the Obama administration has chosen the strategy of deploying regulated and subsidized private sector entities to achieve progressive policy results. This approach was a hallmark of the so-called Clintonian, "New Democrat" movement, and the broader international movement sometimes referred to as "the Third Way," which often defended the use of private means for public ends.

As I've written for quite some time, I've honestly never understood how anyone could think that Obama was going to bring about some sort of "new" political approach or governing method when, as Kilgore notes, what he practices -- politically and substantively -- is the Third Way, DLC, triangulating corporatism of the Clinton era, just re-packaged with some sleeker and more updated marketing.  At its core, it seeks to use government power not to regulate, but to benefit and even merge with, large corporate interests, both for political power (those corporate interests, in return, then fund the Party and its campaigns) and for policy ends.  It's devoted to empowering large corporations, letting them always get what they want from government, and extracting, at best, some very modest concessions in return.  This is the same point Taibbi made about the Democratic Party in the context of economic policy:

The significance of all of these appointments isn't that the Wall Street types are now in a position to provide direct favors to their former employers. It's that, with one or two exceptions, they collectively offer a microcosm of what the Democratic Party has come to stand for in the 21st century. Virtually all of the Rubinites brought in to manage the economy under Obama share the same fundamental political philosophy carefully articulated for years by the Hamilton Project: Expand the safety net to protect the poor, but let Wall Street do whatever it wants.

One finds this in far more than just economic policy, and it's about more than just letting corporations do what they want.  It's about affirmatively harnessing government power in order to benefit and strengthen those corporate interests and even merging government and the private sector.  In the intelligence and surveillance realms, for instance, the line between government agencies and private corporations barely exists.  Military policy is carried out almost as much by private contractors as by our state's armed forces.  Corporate executives and lobbyists can shuffle between the public and private sectors so seamlessly because the divisions have been so eroded.  Our laws are written not by elected representatives but, literally, by the largest and richest corporations.  At the level of the most concentrated power, large corporate interests and government actions are basically inseparable.

The health care bill is one of the most flagrant advancements of this corporatism yet, as it bizarrely forces millions of people to buy extremely inadequate products from the private health insurance industry -- regardless of whether they want it or, worse, whether they can afford it (even with some subsidies).   In other words, it uses the power of government, the force of law, to give the greatest gift imaginable to this industry -- tens of millions of coerced customers, many of whom will be truly burdened by having to turn their money over to these corporations -- and is thus a truly extreme advancement of this corporatist model.  It's undeniably true that the bill will also do some genuine good, as it will help many people who can't get coverage now to get it (though it will also severely burden many people with compelled, uncontrolled premiums and will potentially weaken coverage for millions as well).  If one judges the bill purely from the narrow perspective of coverage, a rational and reasonable (though by no means conclusive) case can be made in its favor.  But if one finds this creeping corporatism to be a truly disturbing and nefarious trend, then the bill will seem far less benign.

As I've noted before, this growing opposition to corporatism -- to the virtually absolute domination of our political process by large corporations -- is one of the many issues that transcend the trite left/right drama endlessly used as a distraction.  The anger among both the left and right towards the bank bailout, and towards lobbyist influence in general, illustrates that.  Kilgore says that anger among the left and right over corporatism is irreconcilable, and this is the point I think he has mostly wrong:

To put it more bluntly, on a widening range of issues, Obama's critics to the right say he's engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector. They can't both be right, of course, and these critics would take the country in completely different directions if given a chance.  But the tactical convergence is there if they choose to pursue it.

This supposedly irreconcilable difference Kilgore identifies is more semantics than substance.  It's certainly true that health care opponents on the left want more a expansive plan while opponents on the right want the opposite.  But the objections over the mandate are largely identical -- it's a coerced gift to the private health insurance industry that underwrites the Democratic Party.  The same was true over opposition to the bailout, objections to lobbying influence over Washington, and most of all, the growing anger that Washington serves the interests of financial elites at the expense of the working class.

Whether you call it "a government takeover of the private sector" or a "private sector takeover of government," it's the same thing:  a merger of government power and corporate interests which benefits both of the merged entities (the party in power and the corporations) at everyone else's expense.  Growing anger over that is rooted far more in an insider/outsider dichotomy over who controls Washington than it is in the standard conservative/liberal ideological splits from the 1990s.  It's true that the people who are angry enough to attend tea parties are being exploited and misled by GOP operatives and right-wing polemicists, but many of their grievences about how Washington is ignoring their interests are valid, and the Democratic Party has no answers for them because it's dependent upon and supportive of that corporatist model.  That's why they turn to Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh; what could a Democratic Party dependent upon corporate funding and subservient to its interests possibly have to say to populist anger?

Even if one grants the arguments made by proponents of the health care bill about increased coverage, what the bill does is reinforces and bolsters a radically corrupt and flawed insurance model and and an even more corrupt and destructive model of "governing."  It is a major step forward for the corporatist model, even a new innovation in propping it up.  How one weighs those benefits and costs -- both in the health care debate and with regard to many of Obama's other policies -- depends largely upon how devoted one is to undermining and weakening this corporatist framework (as opposed to exploiting it for political gain and some policy aims).  That's one of the primary underlying divisions Kilgore identifies, and he's right to call for greater examination and debate over the role it is playing.

Timely work by Greenwald as usual though I’m not sure how much evidence there is to support the correlation between early support for the Iraq War and health care reform. Nonetheless the consolidation of the two party-system and the increasing powers of the corporate state highlights for us the underlining yet typically overlooked opposition taking place between corporate/financial power and, as embarrassing as it may no doubt be to say these days, democratic power. For as we customarily see, the latter is paltry and feckless in comparison; it gets routinely outspent, outfoxed, defeated, mocked, and humiliated time and time again.

As this latest health-care swindle illustrates, as well as the shenanigans in Nopenhagen show, the restricted elbow-jostling-“competition” amongst a handful of oligopolies will be largely immaterial for the vast majority of people throughout the world who understand these arrangements as nothing more than a single cohesive and interlocking “system” not only defined by equilibrium and overall institutional stability but by their intention to fleece anything and everything it can to turn a fucking buck. Of course, corporate and financial power has always been able to coalesce to thwart efforts to contest and challenge it in any significant way. They defined the debate, constricted the agendas, and always charged a fee. But the biggest damage done during “the age of Obama” will likely be the killing off any possibility of a “progressive” politics once and for all – even as a political brand worth touting. No one – especially “low information voters” who feel alienated from any semblance to what may be even considered an engaged political life – believes politics can be broached in any serious way without also calling attention to obvious role of corporate $$ and domination. It is just unfortunate that Progressive and Liberal Wonks for Obama will be the last ones to come around.  

Another way to understand all this is to think beyond elections and policies, and focus on the increased penetration of private and public spheres which has brought about the long term expansion of state power – THE liberal bugaboo. Here the accomplishments of neo-liberalism over the last few decades are particularly revealing for having effectually incorporated public and private agencies into professional albeit secretive consultations. For if the role of “government” was simply to create a good climate for capital and markets, (ha!) the ensuing “privatization” and “contracting out” to the corporate sector has effectually ensconced a “shadow elite” who migrate to and fro between sectors.

So is there a difference between Congressmen and Presidents cutting deals with their corporate overlords and actually working on behalf of them? Before you answer this, consider first how every instinct of our political culture insists on incremental trifling, and remains ever so fearful and of what may exist on the periphery. Consider further that what the political moderates and intellectual gestapo of Realism simply do not grasp is the depth and nature of the problems facing us. Indeed we are at those rare moments in history when the radical has become pragmatic, and when compromise, concessions, and the whole bi-partisan structure courts disaster. The question is not what can be done but what must be done.

December 17, 2009


Maggie Mahar, Luke Mitchell, and Jacob Hacker discuss the Senate bill on Health Care.

December 14, 2009

Here’s the thing

Democrats know they have no more excuses. And what better way to dodge this realization than to whine about obstructionism from Republicans and Blue-Dogs while snark smugly to themselves about Sarah Palin. As many in the mainstream media are asking whether Obama’s “base” will show up at the polls in November for mid-term elections, we might as well state, for purposes of disclosure, the all-too-obvious: despite controlling both Houses of Congress, as well as having rejoiced just over a year ago in the election of Change-candidate Barack Obama, Democrats, and liberals especially, have – in less than a year! – transformed from being cheerleaders for political powers they had little interest in understanding much less contesting to becoming complacent pathetic goobers.

Consider this rationalization offered by Matt Yglesias as a response to Matt Taibbi’s well argued criticism of Obama’s ties to Wall St. Or even this pathetic laugher by Steve Benen which tries to piggyback on Yglesias’ attempt to get Obama off the hook. Even more to the point, both not only sidestep the waning enthusiasm of Democratic voters but explain away the smooth transition from GW Bush to Obama by suggesting critics “change focus” onto Congress where, they allege, the real problem exists. What Yglesias and Benen are actually doing is absolving the structural failures of the Democratic party. Their myopia – if one can call it that – is of course endemic to the “realism” and “compromise” prized by “centrists” especially during the Clinton years. But that it has infiltrated the thinking of “progressives” today who still confuse a party with a movement, a fight with a strategy, and who remain blind and beholden in their analyses to false choices and false oppositions, is even more disconcerting. 

I guess for some the antics of the GOP will always make the Dems look good enough. The question however is whether we continue to allow the GOP to set the standard of expectations. While Yglesias and Benen clearly find it difficult to admit that both parties are failing, and that people are increasingly catching on to this, they also cling to incremental policy tinkering by Washington insiders who stay silent on the defining powers of the day: corporate and financial power. Ultimately it is simply naïve – as well as disingenuous – for people, (“progressives” especially,) to believe that a political system that has been bought, sold, and hollowed out by corporate power will ever bring meaningful change to ordinary folks without a real struggle, without some direct democratic activism, to draw the proverbial-line-in-the-sand and counteract that power. The most important opposition for people to recognize today also happens to be the most difficult to go fight: democracy vs. corporate power.

In this spirit Chris Hedges provides one of the most scathing critiques of “the liberal intelligentsia” in “Liberals are Useless,” where he lambasts also “the liberal class” for having pretty much earned the “public derision” it has received.

“Anyone who says he or she cares about the working class in this country should have walked out on the Democratic Party in 1994 with the passage of NAFTA. And it has only been downhill since. If welfare reform, the 1999 Financial Services Modernization Act, which gutted the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act—designed to prevent the kind of banking crisis we are now undergoing—and the craven decision by the Democratic Congress to continue to fund and expand our imperial wars were not enough to make you revolt, how about the refusal to restore habeas corpus, end torture in our offshore penal colonies, abolish George W. Bush’s secrecy laws or halt the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of American citizens? The imperial projects and the corporate state have not altered under Obama.”

If Hedges suggests the case nevertheless for a renewal of democratic progressivism – one that opposes the corporate plutocracy dominating the two-party system – he clearly points the finger directly at “we” who refuse a more activist struggle. For the hypocrisy and complacency of liberals and progressives during times of economic collapse can only have dire consequences.

“The gravest danger we face as a nation is not from the far right, although it may well inherit power, but from a bankrupt liberal class that has lost the will to fight and the moral courage to stand up for what it espouses.”

Indeed populist rage is out there; but remarkably it not coming from anyone bemoaning Obama’s continual catering to corporate plutocracy and militarism but from the Paleo-conservative right. See The NY Times here.

How might we intelligently confront the corporate-feudalist-populism of the right?  Consider Noam Chomsky’s take, when remarking on populist anger on the right,

“These people think, ‘I've done everything right all my life, I'm a god-fearing Christian, I'm white, I'm male, I've worked hard, and I carry a gun. I do everything I'm supposed to do. And I'm getting shafted.’ And in fact they are getting shafted. For 30 years their wages have stagnated or declined, the social conditions have worsened, the children are going crazy, there are no schools, there's nothing, so somebody must be doing something to them, and they want to know who it is. Well Rush Limbaugh has answered - it's the rich liberals who own the banks and run the government, and of course run the media, and they don't care about you—they just want to give everything away to illegal immigrants and gays and communists and so on.”

“Well, you know, the reaction we should be having to them is not ridicule, but rather self-criticism. Why aren't we organizing them? I mean, we are the ones that ought to be organizing them, not Rush Limbaugh…. (D)on't ridicule these people, join them, and talk about their real grievances and give them a sensible answer, like, ‘Take over your factories.’”

Waaay easier said than done, I know. But it is interesting to see how the idea of appealing to the interests of your ideological opponents actually reaches across the aisle in ways liberals and progressives today cannot even imagine. Unfortunately, for commentators like Yglesisias and Benen anything too far outside the mainstream, like a Chomsky, Hedges, Klein, or Kucinich, is damned right out of the gate even though everyone knows that it is the “experts” and “insiders” who have driven the country off the cliff and plundered the lives and savings of millions. 

Liberals surely have much to be angry about, as nearly everyone these days. But they also appear to take comfort in having Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher do the talking for them. Seeing all those protesters in Copenhagen made me wonder: Where is the anti-war movement? Why aren’t the masses of unemployed occupying the offices of elected representatives? Why aren’t millions taking to the streets to demand health-care? to demand a regulatory and prosecutorial cleanup of Wall Street? If it is not difficult to imagine Democrats and liberals nodding their head in agreement with “a movement” or even those seen on TV engaged in popular resistance, it is difficult to imagine them actually doing something to actively participate in them.   

Interestingly, today’s “liberal” moniker has been a stigma imposed rhetorically by Republicans for decades eager to paint Democrats as weak, complacent, and hypocritical. And yet, remarkably, who would have imagined that the name’s sticking power could become strongest precisely when “liberals” finally elect one of their own?

December 8, 2009

You’re Being Spied On

Emails, ATM cards, telephone bills, vehicle registrations, status updates on Facebook, magazine subscriptions, census surveys – even checking out books from the public library – taken together form an informational landscape that is easily mapped and mined by businesses and state agencies. How prevalent is the practice? One can’t be sure but consider a NY Times article last June which reported that the NSA “routinely examine(s) large volumes of Americans’ e-mail messages without court warrants.” Consider further the opening paragraphs of Justin Elliot’s December 4, 2009 piece in Talking Points Memo, “Police Tapped Sprint Customer GPS Data 8 Million Times in A Year.”

Under a new system set up by Sprint, law enforcement agencies have gotten GPS data from the company about its wireless customers 8 million times in about a year, raising a host of questions about consumer privacy, transparency, and oversight of how police obtain location data.

What this means -- and what many wireless customers no doubt do not realize -- is that with a few keystrokes, police can determine in real time the location of a cell phone user through automated systems set up by the phone companies. 

The technological and business boom of the 1990s became politicized radically in the aftermath of 9/11, as the legitimization of surrendering privacy took on new urgency with the War on Terror. Yet aside from the obvious “questions raised” by a few privacy advocates, Americans have been willing to go on their way seemingly oblivious to what Scott Horton, in Harper’s, 12/8/09, refers to as “the harmonious relationship that has arisen between telecommunications service providers—oblivious to federal and state criminal law requiring them to protect the privacy of their customers—and the Justice Department.”

Ever so eager to buy and brandish the latest digital accoutrement advertised, (“access,” “faster,” “more freedom,”) Americans have become addicted to connectivity because it enables us to organize our personal and professional lives, to manage heaps of data, and elicit contact with  others. Digital technologies also activate an endless array of confessions, (in effect, informational doppelgangers,) which get sorted and calibrated into various demographics by companies eager to improve their marketing strategies. (I wonder if political polling is simply a kind of surveillance people simply consent to?) What the increases in militarism and law-enforcement over the last eight years illustrate, as well as what the asymmetries which access to databases obviously implies, is that the effects of concentrated power will only encroach deeper into the social body at large.

The chilling irony, I imagine, is that the discourse of privacy remains alive and kicking as the very basis for companies to prevent members of the public from accessing information that has been gathered about them. In other words, privacy rights have become the basis for refusing public access to facts and data gathered about it!   

December 6, 2009

Interview with MLK

From The Mike Douglas Show, November 1967.