Apocalypse Again: The Boom-and-Bust Cycle of Bipartisan Politics
Apocalypse is the big threat in every major election, and this forecast of doom proves useful to both corporate parties. Heaven or hell, it’s a free country and it’s your choice. Midterm elections are within spitting distance of Halloween, and the party started early with lawn signs portraying the other party’s candidates as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, spreading plague and panic from sea to shining sea. Oh, your house has been foreclosed? No lawn signs for you, but you can wear tea bags from the brim of your camouflage helmet if you care to keep company with Rand Paul and Sarah Palin. We don’t quite know from day to day whether the tea party movement is a real breakaway faction of “libertarians” and “independents,” or just another front group for Republican CEOs.
Seriously, the Republican Party is scary. But there is this other creature in the living room we need to talk about, and it’s a donkey, not an elephant. The Democratic Party has the bad habit of coming on to voters like the neighborhood mafia extortion team. The Democrats have the incurably bad breath of reliably broken promises. They collar and corner us with mobster charm, they pick our pockets while pretending to pick our brains. Then as the big election day draws near, they lean heavily upon us and whisper an almost romantic confession: “Sure, we spit in your faces and ask you to pretend it’s rain. But the other guy is a real brute and would also break your arms.”
If this does not seduce us, they try the next pickup line: “Politics is the art of the possible.” If that gets old, they can still try this key to your heart: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” If all else fails, they try personal compliments: “Why would a nice boy or girl like you pick a date with some skanky Red or skeevy Green? You have such a beautiful mind, you can appreciate the finer things in life, you deserve a lifelong marriage with the Democratic Party.” If you run screaming for the nearest exit, they will still chase you through the streets with this sweet love song: “We can light candles and burn incense in the inner sanctum, and no one else but you and me needs to see our lovely gilded idol of Franklin Roosevelt. Why can’t that be our secret?”
Those deep romantic secrets finally count for nothing, since what counts in the realm of politics can only be public policy. The contents of Bill Clinton’s heart, or Barack Obama’s, or Nancy Pelosi’s should remain as secret as the contents of their stomachs. What we really want to know is how they pick their friends and enemies in public life, and what battles they choose to fight before the whole world. I confess that I, too, was once a member of the Democratic Party. But like many other voters, I had to write that Dear John (or Dear Bill, or Dear Barack, or Dear Nancy) letter—you know, the one that spells out The End of Our Relationship: “I do not love you and I learned a lesson. Cheap dates get raw fucks.”
Yes, I am free to go to the voting booth like a drunk to the local bar, and I can thank my lucky stars that the cheap gin is not actually arsenic. There’s no accounting for taste? Oh, but there must be! The expensively groomed candidate of the Democratic Party must be a dry martini while the expensively groomed candidate of the Republican Party must be fermented cat piss.
Career politicians depend upon the biggest protection racket in this country, which is often called “our two-party system.” Ours? Really? Certainly that system has no foundation whatsoever in the Constitution of the United States. Nor did we, the people, ever vote for a bipartisan lockdown of every major election.
We are assured by Ivy League economists that economic booms are chiefly the product of an elite group of entrepreneurs, while economic busts inevitably shed workers with yesterday’s skills like dandruff. It’s the best of all possible worlds, so do keep that in mind the next time you read an Op-Ed column telling you politics is the art of the possible. If you grow suspicious that the recurrent breakdowns of capitalism are not simply the Nature of Things, but rather the all too human result of human decisions, then you are well on your way to becoming a socialist. The boom-and-bust cycles of the corporate economy cannot be graphed directly upon the boom-and-bust cycles of corporate politics. That is asking for too much order and symmetry in the universe. But we also go too far if we pretend the regular breakdowns of this economic system bear only an accidental relation to the regular breakdowns of this political system.
Are we condemned to ping-pong matches between Fox News and MSNBC from now till kingdom come? It’s easy to laugh at the blackboard lectures of Glenn Beck, who is busy making common nonsense of Thomas Paine and every other Founding Father. But if thinking youths get their politics from “The Rachel Maddow Show,” they are not yet thinking. The introductory caption for Maddow on my cable system always advertises the fact that she holds a degree from Oxford, but what do we find when she then invites a Princeton professor on her show to talk politics? Lo and behold, we find that the political terrain is no bigger than the usual bipartisan sandbox and fits the television screen perfectly. Maddow is best when she reminds us of forgotten history, and worst when she reverts to the usual scorekeeping of spectator sports.
The sit-down comedians at Comedy Central, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, never lack for great punch lines because the daily news is surreal when it is not truly sad. Their humor, however, would rarely make any Democrat break a sweat, while they give regular acid baths to Republicans. Their scripts are funny but predictably partisan. A comedian taking a wide view of our political system would need an anarchist free spirit as well as a tragic sense of life.
Partisan politics in the United States is a perennial game of Capture the Flag between Team Red and Team Blue. Sometimes as harmless as summer camp, sometimes as lethal as imperial adventures. If our political system is one big binary code, then choosing either Democratic or Republican candidates on Election Day is like typing forever in either Column A or in Column B. You don’t get to create the political script, but you get to choose Dishwater Dull over Batshit Crazy, or maybe Hipster Dude over Has-Been War Hero. The job of career politicians is to convince you that you have a perfectly free choice to hit yourself on the head with a brick or a baseball bat.
So what would an apocalyptic far-right government do if the Republicans gain the balance of power in the nearing midterm elections? Let’s assume the worst, since this is always the terrible possibility conjured up by their Democratic opponents.
Here is the truly apocalyptic Republican program in one paragraph (and we will revisit these issues when we examine how Democrats deal with them): Any moves to tax the rich fairly would be scrapped as the social engineering of socialists. The recent health care reform, though deeply compromised, would be dismantled. The unemployed would remain abandoned, and courts would drop the hammer on immigrant workers. Aid to the poor and homeless would be slashed. Women would be disabused of the notion that they have the freedom to choose abortion. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people would become political pariahs. Corporate overlords, imperial militarists and Christian fundamentalists would take power.
Why is this apocalypse so familiar? Because rage and fear from below were once married to calculated class politics from above. That was the reactionary coalition that swept to power in 1980, and we now call it the Reagan Revolution. Thirty years have passed, and what do we witness now? The same kind of class resentment from below, but all the more raw and volatile now because so many workers have no living memory of working-class power. Labor union local meetings are indispensable schools of class consciousness, but whole sectors of industry have been shipped offshore to cheaper labor markets.
The historical lesson here is that workers cannot rely on the hope of being shareholders in corporations when their share of capital was never great, much less their power in corporate offices. If workers are to become real stakeholders in the national economy, they will also need to create workplaces in open class conflict with the corporate state. This is still possible through direct action in some sectors of manufacture and of service industries. But even in cities and regions strip-mined and abandoned by capitalists in full flight across national borders, workers may still form new cells of mutual aid. Where two or three are gathered together, a new world comes into being.
Organized labor is not yet taking a truly independent path through this political wilderness. All too often the labor union leaders are simply arms of management, and tools of the corporate state. But all is not dark, all is not lost. The California Nurses Association proved to be a voice of reason against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it went on to join the Massachusetts Nurses Association in founding National Nurses United. Here is real hope for the sick and medical workers alike. Anyone who has spent time in a hospital bed knows that patients often trust nurses more than doctors, because nurses visit more often and can be the real lifelines during a crisis.
Another example of union strength was the recent shutdown of the ports in the Bay Area by longshore workers in solidarity with the late Oscar Grant, an unarmed African-American young man shot in the back by a police officer on New Year’s Day of 2009. Their common cause gives real meaning to that old, worn phrase the dignity of labor. For the cause here was not simply better wages and work conditions but a defense of all citizens against the armed power of the state. Any constitution is an empty contract unless we, the people, step up to public responsibilities. The longshore workers of ILWU Local 10 did so Oct. 23 and joined members of Grant’s family in public protest. “An injury to one is an injury to all”—that is the motto of ILWU Local 10, and it should be the Golden Rule for any decent republic. Anyone who claims working people have no heart left for public life and struggle has just not been paying attention.
The ruling class remains fiercely class-conscious, and it commands the heights of political power. Whenever the Republicans claim that the Democrats are preaching class war, this is a classic case of political projection. Class divisions have deepened over the past 30 years, but only the most zealous Democrat would pretend that all blame lies with the Republicans. That is a “progressive” fiction that has regressive consequences in every major election, since it carries the hypnotic suggestion that voters can choose only between two corporate parties.
No one seriously claims that political parties alone determine economic surges and crashes. The causal order is rather the reverse: Objective economic forces bear down upon political systems, and then all kinds of ideological fractures come to the surface, and all kinds of ad hoc coalitions are formed across party lines. That means every election guarantees the relative stability of corporate rule, so long as the two big corporate parties maintain their lockdown on the electoral system. The very rich still remain much better represented in Congress than the working and middle classes.
What do we find on the ideological fever charts of this nation all through the previous century, and now into the first decade of the 21st as well? A perennial holy war not only against avowed red-blooded socialists, whether domestic or foreign, but also an attempt to paint the most panic-stricken liberals in shades of deepest pink. Republicans once crusaded against actually existing communism, whereas now they crusade against the utterly nonexistent “socialism” of the Democratic Party.
And how does the Democratic Party fight the charge of socialism?
The Democrats refuse to fight fair and square for a graduated income tax, proportionate to real wages and our actually existing class system. They maintain the pretense of defending “the middle class,” an ideological middle ground in which labor unions are strictly for losers and philanthropy is the hobby of the rich.
The Democrats bungled health care reform very badly under the Clinton administration, and still worse under the Obama administration. None of the necessary lessons were learned the second time around, and indeed the insurance companies are already busy gaming the new system. This was predicted by the good doctors who founded Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). Home foreclosures are still a high-profile story; but the health care bills that are not covered by private insurance plans are what really force so many people into bankruptcy.
The Democrats have not given comprehensive aid to the unemployed, which would indeed require social democratic public programs. A public works program would do much good in repairing roads, tunnels and bridges, but the Democrats have their own interests in privatizing public services and public infrastructure.
The party line on abortion under the Clinton administration was that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” but that ideal can be secured only through real social democracy in health care, housing and education—namely, in all the public goods that advance the material and social well-being of women. The same administration, however, advanced a punitive program of “welfare reform,” dismantling some remnants of the New Deal welfare state that gave shelter to the most exposed women and children.
Two of the signal concessions President Clinton made to the far right concerned the rights of gay people, namely, signing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) into federal law. Both laws have thrown long shadows over the political landscape at the state and local levels. Obama campaigned on a vague program of hope and change, and promised whatever he thought was necessary to any group of likely voters, including gay people. As a self-proclaimed “community organizer,” he might have drafted genuine organizers from all the communities hoping for change. Instead, he hired Wall Street insiders and the usual partisan hacks of all races, religions and sexual persuasions.
Clinton had once been described as “the first black president,” itself a projection of hope upon a Southern white career politician. An honest wish to transcend racist history is just not good enough. But Obama was, in fact, the first black president, and the same wishes and projections are shipwrecked once again on the rocks and reefs of class politics. The very idea of economic class is a poor abstraction unless it is grounded in social relations that are also racial, sexual and cultural. How does a class-divided culture really come to light? Only through the very social system that is saturated with the ruling ideas of a ruling class. The manifold reality of class is tested and proved in real time, and in searing events such as wars and epidemics. Before there is enlightenment there is heartbreak.
The epidemic of AIDS tracked heavily, though not exclusively, along lines of race, sex and class. Clinton discovered AIDS in earnest only when he left public office and began campaigning for the Nobel Prize. Nowadays Clinton would much rather deal with AIDS in Haiti (certainly a worthy cause) than with the class system that still burdens so many African-Americans with chronic illnesses, including AIDS.
Irony? But there can be no irony if we do not even remember history. Each president graduates from the White House into a kind of Ivy League of philanthropy, and into an alternate universe in which buildings, libraries and foundations bear their names. Besides being tasteless, such people have no sense of shame. There is an inconvenient truth buried in the foundation of all their well-publicized philanthropy. In the words of William Blake: “Pity would be no more / If we did not make somebody poor, / And Mercy no more could be / If all were as happy as we.”
Likewise, the only lesson Clinton learned from the economic counterrevolution led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was to make a hard-right U-turn toward deregulation, a kind of Keynesianism in reverse. In this realm, too, certain New Deal restraints on banks and the “free market” were abandoned. (I recommend a 1998 book by the economist Michael Meeropol, “Surrender: How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution,” and the recently published “The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street,” by Robert Scheer.)
In Pennsylvania, the Democratic Party has used the courts as blunt instruments against the candidates of the Green Party. Using the “independent judiciary” as partisan brass knuckles may seem thuggish, but the bipartisan lockdown of elections can also be achieved by selling voters a false bargain. This is what happened when Proposition 14 was sold to Californians as a great electoral reform. It was nothing of the kind; it was designed to bump independent and insurgent parties off the ballot, and it may yet succeed. Recently, the Green gubernatorial candidate in California, Laura Wells, was denied the chance to debate the two corporate candidates at a public forum. When she tried to attend the event as a member of the audience, she was arrested. That story was then broadcast online and went over, under and around much of the traditional news media. Every such attack on basic democracy also speeds the day when career politicians hang themselves with their own rope.
War is more truly our national religion than the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, so making a class-conscious case for peace is rank heresy in many houses of worship and in both houses of Congress. Protestantism has largely devolved into the gospel of prosperity, and God has become the gatekeeper of a gated community— for in my Father’s house there are many mansions.
The First Amendment to our Constitution forbids the establishment of any state religion, but the deism of Jefferson and other Founding Fathers is no better than atheism to Christian crusaders. For that matter, if the Bill of Rights can be neatly reduced to the right to own guns and form far-right militias, then the rest of the text is a damn nuisance. Much of our national history has not even been forgotten, since it was never learned or taught in the first place. This is why right-wing candidates for public office can invent any original intent they please for the Founding Fathers and not have any idea of the original text of our country’s Constitution. The First Amendment was breaking news to Christine O’Donnell, a conservative Christian and a Republican candidate from Delaware for the U.S. Senate, during an Oct. 19 televised debate with her Democratic opponent .
If Abraham Lincoln were to rise from the grave and talk as plainly about labor and capital as he once did in Congress, many Democrats and Republicans would think he sounded like a socialist. That’s not far wrong, since Lincoln was (within the limits of his time and place) a social democrat within the republican tradition. In other words, our devolved Democrats have long since abandoned plain talk about social democracy, even as our devolved Republicans have abandoned the constitutional ground of the republic.
Congress has become the front office of the ruling class, but the corporate-funded big media broadcast the official faction fights with all the frenzy of gladiatorial combat in the Colosseum. Those who truly fight and die do so in wars beyond our borders; but the American empire is justified as a horn of plenty, pouring forth democracy and all good things upon the world. If we happen to build our military bases near oil and mineral deposits, then any question raised about American morals and motives must be an outright slander against the soldiers who sacrifice limbs and lives. Career politicians do not just wrap themselves in the flag; they wrap themselves in the flags draped on the coffins of dead soldiers. For every John McCain or John Kerry who showed real courage in battle, however misguided the war, there are scores of politicians who never served in uniform and yet campaign for votes as professional militarists.
The bloody sacrifice of the young is enshrined in national rites and monuments, so the roots of the next war always extend far back into our immense military cemeteries; and the bloody fruits of empire seem always within reach. The partisan spectacle is a fact of public life, but just as surely a grand distraction. Once in a while the news breaks that criminals exist in executive offices; but the systematic criminality of the corporate state is a subject that never needs to be censored since it would never be raised in a bipartisan debate.
In the 1980s, the triumph of reaction was blamed not only on the Republican Party but also on feminists, gay people and anti-racist activists — namely, on people who were often fighting for our lives and for basic democracy. A whole crew of straight white men cranked out columns deriding “wedge issues” and “identity politics.” Their common complaint was spelled out at greater length in books such as “The Twilight of Common Dreams” by Todd Gitlin and Michael Tomasky’s “Left for Dead: The Life, Death and Possible Resurrection of Progressive Politics in America.” Even Christopher Hitchens (who had not yet become a fellow traveler of the imperial right) was quoted in the February 1997 issue of The Progressive as saying, “I remember the first time I heard the slogan ‘the personal is political.’ I felt a deep, immediate sense of impending doom.”
In “The Queer Question: Essays on Desire and Democracy” (South End Press, 1997) I suggested those writers were defending their own brand of identity politics. The danger of playing any identity as a trump card in a political poker game is real, but any claim to represent “the universal left” must also remain open to question. For the sake of brevity, I will summarize the case for a social democracy founded on social pluralism with a quote from Sartre’s “Anti-Semite and Jew,” written just after World War II:
“What we propose is a concrete liberalism. By that we mean that all persons who through their work collaborate toward the greatness of a country have the full rights of citizens of that country. What gives them this right is not the possession of a problematical and abstract ‘human nature,’ but their active participation in the life of the society. This means, then, that the Jews—and likewise the Arabs and the Negroes—from the moment that they are participants in the national enterprise, have a right to that enterprise; they are citizens. But they have these rights as Jews, Negroes, or Arabs—that is, as concrete persons.”
If we are serious about the human dignity of “concrete persons,” we must defend fair wages and all due legal protection for immigrant workers in our country today. There is an abysmal contradiction between exploiting the labor of immigrant workers and putting targets on their backs as alien invaders. But this contradiction also serves the interests of many employers, since a work force that must pass through barbed wire fences and police dogs will have a tougher time forming a labor union. In this way bosses can have their cake and take bread from workers, too.
True, a police raid on a restaurant kitchen or a tomato farm may be a problem for an employer on that very day. But this kind of random social terrorism is also money in the bank, since the long-term suppression of wages and labor organizing is not an accidental side effect. The lords of agribusiness have a working coalition with the local police chiefs. Otherwise we must explain why fruit and vegetables keep appearing so magically in supermarkets and on dinner plates. Or why so many front lawns and golf courses remain so well tended by landscape workers from Mexico or Guatemala. Or why so many hotels, hospitals and office buildings are cleaned by people who do not earn a living wage.
Here in the southwest region of the United States, this contradiction is a Grand Canyon between liberal ideals and actual ruling-class power. In reality, the number of undocumented workers crossing over our southern border has gone down. That is not surprising, given the deep recession and the recent political campaign to give police in Arizona the power to demand identity papers at will. Even so, the fantasy of a bunker state with an Iron Wall is a convenient exit from reality, since capitalism is an essentially porous and diffuse system of profit. Corporations (and politicians of both corporate parties) placed the mobility of capital above all other considerations.
Let’s recall that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), pushed by President Clinton and implemented with bipartisan support in 1994, was a bill of rights for big business, but it was a hemispheric hurricane for the working class. Workers in the United States lost high-paying jobs in skilled manufacturing; Mexican workers swiftly lost wages before losing jobs entirely; and the culture of social democracy in Canada was deeply eroded. As Robert E. Scott wrote in his 2003 article “The high price of ‘free’ trade” on the Economic Policy Institute website:
“Further study of NAFTA by researchers in Canada and Mexico has shown that workers in all three countries have been hurt, but for different reasons (Faux et al. 2001). In Mexico, real wages have fallen sharply and there has been a steep decline in the number of people holding regular jobs in paid positions. Many workers have been shifted into subsistence-level work in the ‘informal sector,’ frequently unpaid work in family retail trade or restaurant businesses. Additionally, a flood of subsidized, low-priced corn from the United States has decimated farmers and rural economics. In Canada, a decade of heightened competition with the United States is eroding social investment in public spending on education, health care, unemployment compensation, and a wide range of other public services.”
NAFTA was followed by the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005, which extended “the logic of the market” to five Central American nations and to the Dominican Republic. Jimmy Carter was an enthusiastic promoter of CAFTA, and if a more extensive South American Free Trade Agreement had been possible he would have supported that as well. But Carter did have the decency to state that the Venezuelan people had voted fair and square for an economic populist, Hugo Chavez. The working classes in Mexico, Central America and South America have often defied capitalist and outright fascist rulers in mass protests, but they have also suffered heavy losses through the jailing and killing of their bravest militants and labor leaders. To this day, workers from Juarez to Tierra del Fuego have long memories of political betrayals and outright repression. Generally, they do their best to settle accounts with ballots and not bullets. Anyone who argues that workers have no right to wage the class struggle beyond election days, however, is simply wishing that the working class would reduce itself to a passive production line on every other day of the year.
This is the ground of struggle, and this is the ground of solidarity. If socialists are not internationalists, we might as well join phony populists in the existing big corporate parties. The only internationalism recognized by demagogues such as Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly is the unrestricted mobility of capital over the whole planet. The price of this “free market” is the near feudal servitude of many millions of workers, and the imperial wars in which they die so young.
Patriotism of that kind is the false gospel of the ruling class. The sooner we break those mental chains, the better we are able to love our homeland. And what is any homeland but a wide sense of our neighborhood? If we do not want our streets filled with the tanks of a foreign power or our skies filled with deadly drones, then by what divine right do we inflict them on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan? These wars have long been an exercise of ruling-class power, waged in the domestic political realm by two political parties that serve the same corporate interests even as they play musical chairs in Congress.
“Our two-party system” is an ideological fiction, but this fiction has real political power. On the eve of the midterm elections, the Democratic Party is struggling to hold together the usual unstable coalition of Blue Dog Democrats, labor unions and corporate managers.
Whether the tea party movement is an appendage of the Republican Party or a mutant force that may break party ranks, we cannot yet predict. Tea party activists cover a spectrum of far-right causes, but at present the central and controlling idea seems to be free-market fundamentalism. In its purest form, this ideology is pure nonsense, since the irreducible price of every “free” market is the actual labor of human beings.
Granting “personhood” to corporations was a piece of godlike presumption on the part of Supreme Court justices in 1886, when they ruled in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad that the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment made any corporation a natural person under the U.S. Constitution. As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote 60 years later, “There was no history, logic, or reason to support that view.”
That legal precedent of corporate personhood undermined our public life, yet it is consistent with the Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case early this year (though it remains indefensible). The latter decision gives corporations a right to make unlimited campaign donations, and Congress has failed to impose disclosure requirements. Obama’s noblest public moment came in his last State of the Union speech when he made a direct criticism of this Supreme Court ruling. But this president does not simply serve at the will of the people; he also serves at the will of the ruling class, and remains a member of that class in good standing so long as he presides loyally over a corporate state and imperial wars.
If every government depends on the consent of the governed, then every neighborhood and workplace is potentially a small republic of persons who are willing to say, “We do not consent.” Do the capitalist parties depend upon your votes and donations? Deprive those parties of your moral and material support. Vote against the parties of war and empire every chance you get, and cast your vote for the parties of peace, economic democracy and ecological sanity. In this election, the Green Party of the United States represents not only our best hope of social democracy, but also our best chance to bring ecological common sense to our global economy.