Power and the Tiny Acts of Rebellion
There is no hope left for achieving significant reform or restoring our democracy through established mechanisms of power. The electoral process has been hijacked by corporations. The judiciary has been corrupted and bought. The press shuts out the most important voices in the country and feeds us the banal and the absurd. Universities prostitute themselves for corporate dollars. Labor unions are marginal and ineffectual forces. The economy is in the hands of corporate swindlers and speculators. And the public, enchanted by electronic hallucinations, remains passive and supine. We have no tools left within the power structure in our fight to halt unchecked corporate pillage.
The liberal class, which Barack Obama represents, was never endowed with much vision or courage, but it did occasionally respond when pressured by popular democratic movements. This was how we got the New Deal, civil rights legislation and the array of consumer legislation pushed through by Ralph Nader and his allies in the Democratic Party. The complete surrendering of power, however, to corporate interests means that those of us who seek nonviolent yet profound change have no one within the power elite we can trust for support. The corporate coup has ossified the structures of power. It has obliterated all checks on corporate malfeasance. It has left us stripped of the tools of mass organization that once nudged the system forward toward justice.
Obama knows where power lies and serves these centers of power. The tragedy — if tragedy is the right word — is that Obama, after selling his soul to corporations, has been discarded. Corporate power doesn’t need brand Obama anymore. They have found new brands in the tea party, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Obama has been abandoned by those who once bundled contributions for him by the millions of dollars. Obama and the Democratic Party will, I expect, spend the next two years being even more obsequious to corporate power. Obama clearly loves the pomp and privilege of statecraft that much. But I am not sure it will work.
Reformers on the outside, while they remain militant and faithful to issues of justice, nevertheless depend on the liberal establishment to respond to public pressure. If these reformers cannot pressure the liberal class and the power elite to evoke real change, they become ineffectual. Our fate is intimately tied to the liberals who have betrayed us. We speak in the language of policies and issues. We will find it harder and harder, given our impotence, to compete with the impassioned calls for new glory, revenge and moral purity that resonate with a public beset by foreclosures, long-term unemployment, bankruptcies and a medical system that abandons them. Once any political system ossifies, once all mechanisms for reform close, the lunatic fringe of a society, as I saw in Yugoslavia, rises out of the moral swamp to take control. The reformers, however well meaning and honest, finally have nothing to offer. They are disarmed.
We have reached a point where stunted and deformed individuals, whose rapacious greed fuels the plunge of tens of millions of Americans into abject poverty and misery, determine the moral fiber of the nation. It is no more morally justifiable to kill someone for profit than it is to kill that person for religious fanaticism. And yet, from health companies to the oil and natural gas industry to private weapons contractors, individual death and the wholesale death of the ecosystem have become acceptable corporate business. The mounting human misery in the United States, which could lead to the sporadic bursts of anger we have seen on the streets of France, will be met with severe repression from the security and surveillance state, which always accompanies the rise of the corporate state. The one method left open by which we can respond — massive street protests, the destruction of corporate property and violence — will become the excuse to impose total tyranny. The intrusive pat-downs at airports may soon become a fond memory of what it was like when we still had a little freedom left.
All reform movements, from the battle for universal health care to the struggle for alternative energy and sane environmental controls to financial regulation to an end to our permanent war economy, have run into this new, terrifying configuration of power. They have confronted an awful truth. We do not count. And they have been helpless to respond as those who are most skilled in the manipulation of hate lead a confused populace to call for their own enslavement.
Dr. Margaret Flowers, a pediatrician from Maryland who volunteers for Physicians for a National Health Program, knows what it is like to challenge the corporate leviathan. She was blacklisted by the corporate media. She was locked out of the debate on health care reform by the Democratic Party and liberal organizations such as MoveOn. She was abandoned by those in Congress who had once backed calls for a rational health care policy. And when she and seven other activists demanded that the argument for universal health care be considered at the hearings held by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, they were forcibly removed from the hearing room.
“The reform process exposed how broken our system is,” Flowers said when we spoke a few days ago. “The health reform debate was never an actual debate. Those in power were very reluctant to have single-payer advocates testify or come to the table. They would not seriously consider our proposal because it was based on evidence of what works. And they did not want this evidence placed before the public. They needed the reform to be based on what they thought was politically feasible and acceptable to the industries that fund their campaigns.” “There was nobody in the House or the Senate who held fast on universal health care,” she lamented. “Sen. [Bernie] Sanders from Vermont introduced a single-payer bill, S 703. He introduced an amendment that would have substituted S 703 for what the Senate was putting together. We had to push pretty hard to get that to the Senate floor, but in the end he was forced by the leadership to withdraw it. He was our strongest person. In the House we saw Chairman John Conyers, who is the lead sponsor for the House single-payer bill, give up pushing for single-payer very early in the process in 2009. Dennis Kucinich pushed to get an amendment that would help give states the ability to pass single-payer. He was not successful in getting that kept in the final House bill. He held out for the longest, but in the end he caved.”
“You can’t effect change from the inside,” she has concluded. “We have a huge imbalance of power. Until we have a shift in power we won’t get effective change in any area, whether financial, climate, you name it. With the wealth inequalities, with the road we are headed down, we face serious problems. Those who work and advocate for social and economic justice have to now join together. We have to be independent of political parties and the major funders. The revolution will not be funded. This is very true.”
“Those who are working for effective change are not going to get foundation dollars,” she stated. “Once a foundation or a wealthy individual agrees to give money they control how that money is used. You have to report to them how you spend that money. They control what you can and cannot do. Robert Wood Johnson [the foundation], for example, funds many public health departments. They fund groups that advocate for health care reform, but those groups are not allowed to pursue or talk about single-payer. Robert Wood Johnson only supports work that is done to create what they call public/private partnership. And we know this is totally ineffective. We tried this before. It is allowing private insurers to exist but developing programs to fill the gaps. Robert Wood Johnson actually works against a single-payer health care system. The Health Care for America Now coalition was another example. It only supported what the Democrats supported. There are a lot of activist groups controlled by the Democratic Party, including Families USA and MoveOn. MoveOn is a very good example. If you look at polls of Democrats on single-payer, about 80 percent support it. But at MoveOn meetings, which is made up mostly of Democrats, when people raised the idea of working for single-payer they were told by MoveOn leaders that the organization was not doing that. And this took place while the Democrats were busy selling out women’s rights, immigrant rights to health care and abandoning the public option. Yet all these groups continued to work for the bill. They argued, in the end, that the health care bill had to be supported because it was not really about health care. It was about the viability of President Obama and the Democratic Party. This is why, in the end, we had to pass it.”
“The Democrats and the Republicans give the illusion that there are differences between them,” said Dr. Flowers. “This keeps the public divided. It weakens opposition. We fight over whether a Democrat will get elected or a Republican will get elected. We vote for the lesser evil, but meanwhile the policies the two parties enact are not significantly different. There were no Democrats willing to hold the line on single-payer. Not one. I don’t see this changing until we radically shift the balance of power by creating a larger and broader social movement.”
The corporate control of every aspect of American life is mirrored in the corporate control of health care. And there are no barriers to prevent corporate domination of every sector of our lives.
“We are at a crisis,” Flowers said. “Health care providers, particularly those in primary care, are finding it very difficult to sustain an independent practice. We are seeing greater and greater corporatization of our health care. Practices are being taken over by these large corporations. You have absolutely no voice when it comes to dealing with the insurance company. They tell you what your reimbursements will be. They make it incredibly difficult and complex to get reimbursed. The rules are arbitrary and change frequently.”
“This new legislation [passed earlier this year] does not change any of that,” she said. “It does not make it easier for doctors. It adds more administrative complexity. We are going to continue to have a shortage of doctors. As the new law rolls out they are giving waivers as the provisions kick in because corporations like McDonald’s say they can’t comply. Insurance companies such as WellPoint, UnitedHealth Group, Aetna, Cigna and Humana that were mandated to sell new policies to children with pre-existing conditions announced they were not going to do it. They said they were going to stop selling new policies to children. So they got waivers from the Obama administration allowing them to charge higher premiums. Health care costs are going to rise faster. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimated that after the legislation passed, our health care costs would rise more steeply than if we had done nothing. The Census Bureau reports that the number of uninsured in the U.S. jumped 10 percent to 51 million people in 2009. About 5.8 million were able to go on public programs, but a third of our population under the age of 65 was uninsured for some portion of 2009. The National Health Insurance Survey estimates that we now have 58 or 59 million uninsured. And the trend is toward underinsurance. These faulty insurance products leave people financially vulnerable if they have a serious accident or illness. They also have financial barriers to care. Co-pays and deductibles cause people to delay or avoid getting the care they need. And all these trends will worsen.”In Manuel de Lope’s novel “The Wrong Blood,” set during the first rumblings that led to the Spanish Civil War, he writes “… nobody knew this at the time and those who had premonitions wouldn’t go so far as to believe them, because fear rejects what intuition accepts.”
But the signs are now so palpable that even fear is not working. Our worst premonitions are becoming reality. Our intuition has proved correct. We are reaching the breaking point. An explosion, unless we halt the increased pressure, seems inevitable. And what is left for those of us who cannot embrace the contaminants of violence? If the system shuts us out how can we influence it through nonviolent mechanisms of popular protest? How can we restore a civil society? How can we battle back against those who will mobilize hatred to cement into place an American fascism?
I do not know if we can win this battle. I suspect we cannot. But I do know that if we stop resisting, if we stop rebelling, something fundamental will die within us. As the corporate vise tightens, as the vast corporate system begins to break down with fossil fuel decline, extreme climate change and the expansion of global poverty, even mundane and ordinary acts to assert our common humanity and justice will be condemned as subversive.
It is time to think of resistance in a new way, something that is no longer carried out to reform a system but as an end in itself. African-Americans understood this during the long night of slavery. German opposition leaders understood it under the Nazis. Dissidents in the former Soviet Union knew this during the nightmare of communism. Resistance in these closed systems was local and often solitary. It was done with the understanding that evil must always be defied. The tiny acts of rebellion — day after day, month after month, year after year and decade after decade — exposed to everyone who witnessed them the heartlessness, cruelty and inhumanity of the oppressor. They were acts of truth and beauty. We must take to the street. We must jam as many wrenches into the corporate system as we can. We must not make it easy for them. But we also must no longer live in self-delusion. This is a battle that will outlive us. And if we fight, even with this tragic vision, we will lead lives worth living and keep alive another way of being.
Chris Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and writes a column every Monday for Truthdig. His newest book is “Death of the Liberal Class.”