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Dare We Use the S-Word?
Posted on May 1, 2009
By Scott Tucker
Is this true? Really? If we take the view from the right, every red-blooded red state should be feeling blue while the rising tide of blue states brings a rising tide of reds into public office. But the notion that Obama is a serious social democrat would require us to believe that he is also a serious Machiavellian. Because his faith in democratic capitalism does seem earnest, and because he has surrounded himself with economic advisers who bear not even the palest pink resemblance to the Swedish or the Spanish Social Democrats.
Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner was born and bred to wine and dine with Wall Street. As The New York Times saw fit to print on April 27, “He ate lunch with senior executives from Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley at the Four Seasons or in their corporate dining rooms.” And the paper of record noted the continuity in the changing of the guard: “An expert in international finance, he served under both Clinton-era Treasury secretaries, Mr. Rubin and Lawrence H. Summers.”
There was a time when liberal Democrats took on the label of “progressive,” since the word liberal had been used so liberally by the Republicans as a swear word. In a purely linguistic dodge, these Democrats responded to red-baiting by adopting ever paler shades of pink in public. What good do all these maneuvers ever do? Red-baiting is the gift that keeps on giving for the right wing, so we may as well come out as honest socialists. If, of course, we happen to be honest socialists.
The Clintonistas convinced themselves that double talk and triangulation would be as much as they could hope for from the Clintons. In any case, they hoped that Bill Clinton would put a mile of daylight between himself and the shades of Reagan. They convinced themselves that “social issues” could be sacrificed to the right wing. Indeed, “social issues” and “wedge issues” became near synonyms among many faithful Democrats. In this way, they began to lose their political and even their moral bearings. They easily forgot (or had never learned) that civil rights and civil liberties are the ground of democracy, not simply real estate at prevailing market values.
In regard to economic policy, the Clintonistas allowed Bill Clinton to continue the bipartisan obfuscation of class divisions in the United States. To speak openly of the working class or of the ruling class made all the career politicians deeply uneasy. That came too close to plain language, and all too close to acknowledging a continuing class struggle of the very rich against the working and middle classes. Like a magical incantation, the phrase “middle class” served to submerge the general public in a warm bath of classless solidarity. There were, however, some memorable documents of dissent. The economist Michael Meeropol wrote a fine study of the whole trajectory of compromise and called it “Surrender: How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution.”
Obama campaigned for the White House on a program of hope and change. The details were vague. The personal story was so vivid and appealing that a clear partisan program could wait.
A clear program cannot wait now, because now Obama has made the choice between the bad war in Iraq and the good war in Afghanistan. The good war seems to have opened a new front in Pakistan. The problem with this good war is that it never got a good debate during the presidential campaign, and it is not getting a good debate in Congress today. The moral high ground is simply assumed because the cause is once again democracy across all borders. The threats that come with this terrain are real. Nuclear weapons and fundamentalist movements should make the Western powers all the more willing to examine our own motives and methods.
Health care was never debated with honesty and with real public engagement. Now the apparatchiks in Congress, most especially the career Democrats, have told us that a single-payer health care plan has simply been taken “off the table.” We are told there will be an expansion of health care on the model of Medicare, which is a plan already familiar to much of the public. But this is also a political dodge, and does not address the very high cost of inviting the health insurance companies to the bargaining table. We need strong corrective medicine here, and this means giving the health insurance companies a clear diagnosis and a bitter pill. They have done best insuring their own interests, and done their worst at insuring public health. They do not belong at the bargaining table at all.
If the economy continues taking a plunge, then ever larger sectors of the middle class will be proletarianized. They might find jobs, but they won’t be in a good mood. They might find their way into movements of social backlash and class resentment. There is a world of difference between class resentment and class consciousness. Politically, this is indeed one of the sharpest dividing lines between fascism and socialism. If we only think of industrial death camps when we think of fascism, then we are not yet thinking historically. Italian fascism explicitly included the “corporate state,” which meant that labor unions were smashed whenever they did not serve as the strong arms of management. Likewise, all spheres of social and political life were subjected to a kind of military coordination. This aspect of fascism was noted by Hitler, and indeed the Nazis made a special doctrine and practice of Gleichschaltung—which is to say, the coordination of all parts of the body politic so it would respond to the will of a dictatorial elite.
Newt Gingrich might be remembered for his 1994 Contract with America. The former speaker of the House may be making another bid for power with the formation of a new group called Renewing American Leadership. Gingrich is still relying on all the old tools and tricks of demagoguery. We can easily see through such a person and still not see the danger of a reversion to the basest forms of class politics and nationalism. The economic storms may well grow worse, and certainly the ruling classes have prepared for a hot summer by consulting with police chiefs and counterinsurgency experts. This is the global landscape in which corporatist and even fascist movements may emerge.
Gingrich told Fox News back in March:
“There is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment. I think it is prepared to use the government if it can get control of it.”
This is a classic case of political projection. Gingrich has long collaborated with right-wing groups who are glad to use the government against gays, and he is a great believer in militarism. We can well believe he is prepared to use the government and abuse the trust of millions if he can get it. Gays serve two purposes in his formulas. Gays become magnets for the rage and resentment of dispossessed and disoriented people, and gays also serve the function of changing the subject from religious authoritarianism to secular fascism.
Any home-grown corporatist movement must labor to reduce socialism to the history of Stalinism. Socialists in Chile, Venezuela, Spain, Sweden or Iceland deserve no distinctions; they must be viewed as creeping forms of life migrating toward North Korea. Likewise, a fair discussion of democracy and socialism in the United States might be reserved for dinner tables or academies, but must not take place in open political campaigns. Given these conditions in public life, why be surprised that corporatism has gone so far in replacing democracy in the United States?
To defend basic democracy, we will have to talk honestly about class politics. If the Founding Fathers said nothing foundational about social democracy, neither did they write the two-party system into the Constitution. We are not children under the care of 18th century fathers. And if that sounds scary, then it’s time for we, the people, to grow up.
Scott Tucker is a writer and democratic socialist. He lives in Los Angeles with Larry Gross. They have been kindred by choice since 1975.
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