Dare We Use the S-Word?
“Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the supporter of capital, and deserves the higher consideration.”
— Abraham Lincoln in his first annual message to Congress, Dec. 3, 1861.
Finally we got someone other than another white guy in the White House. Finally, after the long linguistic train wreck of the Bush years, we got someone who speaks in complete sentences. Finally we got someone who shows an interest in the world beyond the borders of border fences and country clubs. And now that we’ve got the son of a Kansan mother and a Kenyan father presiding in Washington, the right-wing guttersnipes have gone back to an old game. They have set up Barack Obama for target practice as a socialist.
May Day, 2009 is therefore a good day to remember Obama’s repeatedly stated faith in a capitalist economy. For the true believers on the right, that is not good enough. Obama sometimes suggests that freedom should not be reduced to the free market. Likewise, he has suggested that big banks and big business require public oversight and regulation. These deviations from four-square gospel capitalism are sufficient for the heresy hunters on the right to find reds in the White House beds.
Red-baiting is a hallowed tradition in American public life, though that practice had more traction back in the days when this country also had more militant unions and more voters willing to vote for genuine reds. Nowadays, red-baiting through mass market broadcasting, blogs and videos seems slightly surreal. Why use high-tech messages to finish off an old-fashioned low-tech notion such as socialism? Isn’t that a bit like using the latest missiles and military drones to zero in on dinosaurs that were scary once upon a time?
Maybe not. Maybe the cheerful Cossacks at Fox News can teach us something important about democracy and socialism here and now. They seem to think that socialism has all the vitality of the common cold, and all the viral genius for going sideways when attacked with common antibiotics. They may have a point. They may not know much, but in the realm of politics they do know the difference between viral and bacterial agents. Viral agents require strong antiviral medicine. And yet the common cold is still outwitting modern science.
In politics and culture, a viral message is successful when it spreads by casual contact and rapid contagion. In order to enter our personal streams of memory, there has to be something fitting between these messages and the multiplying messengers.
So if socialism was the political swine flu of the 20th century, why go back? Who needs to revisit those far gone fevers? That, in essence, is the argument of those who believe that capitalism is next to godliness. The cure for the viral agent of socialism is not just cleanliness, but obsessional hygiene in public life. Any trace of social democracy thus becomes a creeping socialist stain on democracy. The very word “regulations” is spoken by Fox pundits with the accent of scandal, as if the subject was San Francisco or Scandinavia.
Fox News is like the eye of God at the pinnacle of the pyramid on all our dollar bills: it aims to be the eye of universal surveillance. This means something like the eye of the state, except for the brute fact that the official ideology of Fox News is the most dumbed down kind of Ayn Rand anarchism. These supervisors of public culture are always looking out for any sign that your 10-year-old child will catch the fever of socialism in an elementary school class on American history.
Again, they may have a point. If American history could be taught with real honesty in elementary schools, the kids would be learning plenty about free speech and about free elections. They would learn that Frederick Douglass, Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs belong in public life and in public memory.
The dirty open secret about these “libertarians” is that they love liberty for the rich and hate liberty for the poor. They say they want a government small enough to drown in a bathtub, but in fact they want a hot date with the state. They really love big government. Really Big Government – the kind that dictates our sex lives and marriage partners; the kind that gives tax shelters for the rich and emergency room health care for the poor; and the kind that imposes a de facto draft on the working classes so they will be pawns in imperial wars till kingdom come.
Ask a dozen of your friends to name the single open socialist in Congress, and how many could do so? But if you have read this far, then your sample of friends may already be skewed by your own political leanings left-of-center. Well, the answer is Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The good news about American democracy is that he was permitted to take office. The bad news is that he remains boxed in by all the bogus “pragmatism” of the big corporate parties.
Sanders is often a voice of reason against shady business in high places. But we need more than a voice of conscience in Congress. We need more than dissent. We need open socialists in local city councils, and we need a democratic socialist party with real electoral traction. The Socialist Party of the United States has a noble history, but presently it has no electoral profile at all. If we look at the program of the Green Party of the United States, we will find some strong elements of social democracy. And with the advantage for voters that the Greens do gain some victories in local elections. The obstacles are much greater if we consider national elections and Congress.
It’s easy to blame Reds and Greens for failing to attract more voters. Sometimes we pretend that big elections are big buffets with all the truly delicious dishes given equal space on the table. Then voters just need to sit down and make a meal of whatever we find tasty. This is the free market model of American politics. But this is false advertising. The censorship and corruption we tolerate in our broken electoral system creates a vacuum in public life that gets filled by career criminals in big banking and big business. Congress has now become the front office of the ruling class.
The United States falls far behind decent standards of social democracy in health care, housing and public transportation. Why? We have no thorough public debates about such issues, and indeed the workable solutions to such problems are dismissed in the name of political realism. This happens in every major election. The stranglehold of the corporate parties on public funds and public life will not be broken without an open political struggle. That struggle will include electoral politics, though politics never begins nor ends on election days.
The Democratic Party has long given voters all the persuasive logic of a protection racket. The message, in various versions, amounts to this: Sure, we spit in your face and ask you to pretend it’s rain, but the other crew would also break your arm. And the partisan methods of driving political opponents out of the public arena have a familiar mafia charm. One example must suffice here. In Pennsylvania, the majority of “progressive” Democrats covered themselves in shame when the “independent judiciary” was used as a partisan hammer against Green Party candidates such as Ralph Nader and Carl Romanelli. Did they protest on principle? Were they willing to defend open elections, even and especially for political opponents? No, they either looked the other way or they joined in a chorus of vituperation against the Green Party. Under the pretext that Green ballot access petitions were not strictly up to code, these candidates were subjected to heavy fines. But their only crime was daring to challenge the two corporate parties.
The current global economic crisis is not just another roller-coaster ride. Many sane and sober observers fear that the international locomotive of corporatism is going off the rails. Is this a necessary crisis of the capitalist system, determined by the self-destruction and self-renovation of a perpetual motion machine? Or is it simply — simply! — a failure to follow the good old rules of financial accounting, with plenty of sunshine on the public ledgers? This way of thinking neatly separates the public motive of private profit from presumably private bad habits such as theft and fraud. That is colossal nonsense. The privatization of public resources (including the public treasury) means all of the “private” bad habits of corporations have catastrophic public consequences.
The notion that capitalism is the best of all possible worlds is very dear to the hearts of capitalists. They assure us everything will turn out alright in the long run. Yes, the old chestnut from Keynes is fitting here: “In the long run, we’re all dead.” And there really is something all too philosophical about taking the long view of lost jobs, vanishing pensions, and cancer patients who can’t afford chemotherapy. The long view means the view from the managerial heights of the corporate juggernaut. The long view means someone is comfortable sitting behind the steering wheel — while others are simply thrown under the wheels.
“Capitalism After the Fall” was the title of an article by Richard W. Stevenson in the April 19, 2009, issue of The New York Times. Democratic capitalism (as the Ford Foundation and The New York Times would say) has taken a tumble, but will surely rise again. This is a cheerful view, as though a gardener scans a bed of roses and says, “Tough luck! Winter slammed my favorites, but these are hardy perennials. Summer is another season.” This will always be so generally true that politicians will always lull the general public with these sweet lullabies.
Barack Obama has been singing such lullabies lately. What else can he do? He, too, needs time and breathing space, and not just the general public. The fact that the two corporate parties have vast interests in common does not make the partisan political arena any less treacherous. What will Obama and his economic advisers offer us in the years ahead? Stevenson quoted the suspicions of Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute:
“They want much more of a European-style social democracy in which people are far less exposed to the vicissitudes of a market economy, and they want to have much easier access to manipulating the private-market economy.”
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.