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7/23/10

The tree of liberty...dies with the Tea Party, and Obama. The increasing case for radical alternatives.

The near total incompetence of the Obama administration reached its apex this week with the dismissal of Shirley Sherrod after a barrage from the right-wing smear machine, spearheaded by Fox News and propagandist Andrew Breitbart. As most people now know, a video was leaked of Mrs. Sherrod claiming that she did not want to give aid to a white farmer, especially considering the pain of black farmers who were being systemically ignored by the US government. As this trickled through the echo-chamber, everyone denounced her as a ‘reverse-racist’; so much so that even the NAACP wrote a communique denouncing her statements. Of course, this video was edited, and with even the White House jumping to conclusions, Mrs. Sherrod was fired. Why? One of the reasons, according to Mrs. Sherrod, was that Glenn Beck would ramp the story up. Thus, the POTUS was essentially bullied by Glenn Beck! She was told to pull over to the side of the road by the White House, and to resign right there.
    
Eventually, the whole video came out, and the moral of her story was the exact opposite of what the overreaction was premised on. Later on, she argued that she helped the white farmer, because this was not an issue of race, but one of inequality that transcends race, viz. class. Of course, this was de-emphasized even in the aftermath by all sides. Mrs. Sherrod was offered her job back by the spineless Obama administration, and was offered an apology for having her name dragged through the mud.
    
Now we know that the Obama administration does not look kindly on the left-wing of the Democratic Party, with Rahm Emanuel calling them and their policies ‘fucking retarded’; and he is right, the progressive wing of the party are ‘retarded’. Their continued adherence to an obvious corporatist shill, who cowers at the feet of Glenn Beck and Fox News is awe inspiring. The whole list of ersatz reform packages that he has championed, be it health-care, financial-reform, climate-change, etc., has amounted to a give away for corporate America in terms of subsidies, perpetual bail-outs, weak regulatory reform and the lack of any substantive ‘public options’ to create some sense of competition with monopoly capital. So why hasn’t the left been rising up against Obama en masse? N.B. this is not to say that some elements of the left aren't riled up against Obama, a cursory look at the blogs and MSNBC's head commentators suggest a contradictory relationship with Obama.
    
One reason, so I figure, is the post-modern, post-class, identity-politics fascination with a mixed president in the office, representing the realization of MLK’s dream; but the reality is that MLK’s dream is only half fulfilled by Obama. Obama is still very much within the ‘modernist’ mould of class politics, he still caters to the rich and their interests. In a sense, he has to, if he did not do so, Democrats and his re-election would face a barrage of corporate financed opposition. Again, we are witnessing the total failure of liberal-democracy, a hole that I fear it has no chance of resurrecting itself from.
    
Like Mrs.Sherrod, MLK’s dream is only half spoken about, the other half is obfuscated and ignored. Both argued that the country has to see a radical reduction in inequality, redistribution of wealth and income to make the principles of liberalism: equality, freedom, egalitarianism, and mobility, a reality. The right will not engage in such a programme, its reason d’etre is to solidify and expand hierarchal inequality, and to expand as much as possible the process of reification throughout society, subordinating everything to the logic of the impersonal market system. The left’s alternative has to be the expansion of the state in order to safeguard more and more into a democratic mechanism to distribute goods and services; but, this alternative has all but died among the contemporary left with Clinton’s abandonment of this project with ‘triangulation’, or the ‘Third Way’ in the UK. We are in a serious crisis and the left  has to fearlessly signal an enemy to rile up populist forces in a positive manner, because if the masses are not articulated in a positive, progressive manner they will be, and are, being articulated in a reactionary mode.
    
The reality is that populist rage is growing in the United States, more and more demands are currently being unmet by the state or civil society--principal among them: employment. The Obama team has totally failed to transform these into a progressive base, like FDR did. Therefore, these normally ‘democratic demands’ are beginning to transform into ‘populist demands’ that can no longer easily be institutionally absorbed into the current hegemonic symbolic order. We see this manifested in the ‘Tea Party’ movement, and its increasing antagonistic view of its relation to the state.
  
A good example is Sharon Angle’s so-called ‘Second Amendment remedies’, or Sarah Palin’s references to ‘pro and anti America’--it is interesting to note that the post-modern fascination with ‘identity’ goes both ways, since the superstars of the right are now women. This is a purely populist operation, cf. Ernesto Laclau.

What may be occurring in the United States is that there is a serious bifurcation of what Althusser would call the ISA’s (Ideological State Apparatuses), with Fox News, and the blog-sphere spearheading a new set of ISA’s that is interpellating subjects in a way that is increasingly radically counter-hegemonic/populist. Indeed, the constant references to ‘real America’ suggests just that.
    
Of course, these people are being interpellated by dominant capital to fight for the deregulation of the markets, to cut taxes, and a whole slew of other policies that would make millions of lives, including their own, materially worse, deepen inequality, and strangle social mobility. Interestingly, the deeper the inequality grows, these individual’s will continue to blame the state as the portent of their discontent--a feedback loop--, instead of channeling their energies against capital and its total capture of the state ideologically and materially.
    
The left is so used to fight its political battles through the courts and other mechanisms, since the presumption is that the American public is inalterably conservative. This naturalization of American subjectivity is essentially a cop-out on the side of the left, a left that is unwilling to engage in a ‘war of position’ against the ‘nodal points’ that the right has successfully planted in the American body politic. It is a remnant of empiricism, by assuming what is seen today was and always will be. Therefore, anytime you hear a reference to God, human nature, or other forms of abstraction as a basis of argument for inaction/action, you should immediately remember Althusser’s  words: “The function of the concept of origin, as in original sin, is to summarize in one word what has not to be thought in order to be able to think what one wants to think.” Hence, the left can change the political terrain in the United States to be more congenial to its interests, especially during a time of systemic crisis; however, one of the problem the left faces is its inability, or unwillingness, to signify a clear enemy who stands against the unity of ‘the people’, and thus help change the ‘frames’ that people interpret the world with.
  
So what does the left, whatever is left of it, to do? It has to begin to agitate for a new left party--my preferred option--, or a strong coup within the Democratic party to use the party as a means to change the political landscape, if that all fails, more drastic action may have to be taken. This battle is one that the left could very well lose, but it is not a time to be timid. As Gramsci notes, one of the most important ‘organic intellectuals’ are party members, and the institution of the party is the best way to get the message across. Do not forget, about 50-40 percent of the American population does not vote, therefore, the left has to bring these people into politics. However, this will necessitate populism, and antagonism, things that the left has foolishly forsaken. Indeed, so debased has the notion of revolution become that now Glenn Beck describes himself as one!

6/27/10

"Baby, it was raining outside." The G20 and you...

    The fetishism of the violence at the G20 summit has done its job, it has totally hidden the progressive agenda of the protesters from sight. The actions of hooligans, anarchists and probably agent provocateurs--police agitators--, coupled with sensationalist media coverage--with menacing music and replaying the same window being broken again and again--have done its job. I personally went to protest against the exploitation of human labour, and the Earth that is inherent within the current system, and the displacement of its debts on us from corporate bailouts--a cost in the United States that might top $24 trillion, or $80,000 per citizen--, the increasingly precarious effects of global warming, and the associated costs by the accumulation of massive sovereign debt. These debts will be paid by high regressive sales taxes, HST anyone?  Spending cuts, and thus a reduction of access to social services like healthcare, education, etc., and making our labour more ‘flexible’, viz. a reduction in labour rights. All of this, plus the reduction of corporate tax rates, is being done in a vain attempt to attract capital investment, based on a failed supply-side, neoliberal model.

    To put it in terms that many erstwhile citizens, now consumers, would better understand: this means less Starbucks fraps, LCD TV’s, and Puma shoes for you--unless you are wiling to pay for it in perpetuity with usurious interest rates, and secret fees; being only able to pay the minimum payment on your credit card, as per the intention of the credit card companies--, but more hours at work, stagnant real wages, and credit card debt just to get by with the benefit of that exploitation going to the very top. Do not let the veneer of name brand clothing that people wear obfuscate, as it’s supposed to do, their actual socio-economic position. Just because you own an expensive (insert inane product here) doesn’t mean you are rich, or even middle class. Chances are very likely that the person with the newest Michael Koors bag is living at home with their parents, because their jobs and wages cannot actually allow them actually live independently, and they probably bought the bag on credit and cannot afford to pay for it for months, years, if ever.

    The reason why poverty is so obvious in third world countries and not here, to a large degree, is our access to credit that allows us to hide our true poverty. If you don’t believe me that our entire economy is increasingly premised on credit, read this from The Economist:

Like alcohol, a debt boom tends to induce euphoria. Traders and investors saw the asset-price rises it brought with it as proof of their brilliance; central banks and governments thought that rising markets and higher tax revenues attested to the soundness of their policies. The answer to all problems seemed to be more debt. Depressed? Use your credit card for a shopping spree “because you’re worth it”. Want to get rich quick? Work for a private-equity or hedge-fund firm, using borrowed money to enhance returns. Looking for faster growth for your company? Borrow money and make an acquisition

Sadly, this debt, in the long-run, makes us worse off. The effective poverty rate is higher than reported, because we do not take away from people’s income their credit payments, which reduces their effective, net income; consider the interest you pay as another, privatized tax. Thus, that expensive bag you bought will cost you a lot more than you’d ever imagine down the line--opportunity cost--, and that bag would, generally, not garner ANY return on investment!

    In addition, inequality is still increasing, which supposedly is a good thing because it creates ‘incentives’ for people to work harder and rewards those who ‘deserve’ what they earn. But, as Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz argues,

Neoclassical economic theory, which has dominated in the West for a century, holds that each individual’s compensation reflects his marginal social contribution...But Borlaug [inventor of the Green Revolution] and our bankers refute that theory. If neoclassical theory were correct, Borlaug would have been among the wealthiest men in the world, while our bankers would have been lining up at soup kitchens

Indeed, if the neoclassical mode was right, crisis would not exist because resources would go, efficiently, to where it should go. Instead, we are now living in a world that has the highest level of inequality in history, and the economic system collapsed. Why? As inequality increases, aggregate demand decreases, which increases savings by capitalists, due to an associated lack of profitable investment opportunities--overaccumulation--that leads to higher unemployment that leads to lower real wages and a weakening of the labour movement with the creation of a “reserve army” of the unemployed. Sound too abstract? I will quote Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman:

Every year that goes by with extremely high unemployment increases the chance that many of the long-term unemployed will never come back to the work force, and become a permanent underclass. Every year that there are five times as many people seeking work as there are job openings means that hundreds of thousands of Americans graduating from school are denied the chance to get started on their working lives. And with each passing month we drift closer to a Japanese-style deflationary trap.

I know, “well that’s not me” syndrome is hitting, but you must realize you are replaceable, don’t you?

    Therefore, congealed into a whole, this creates a feedback loop creating the same demand destruction that created the crisis in the first place. Thus, the ‘free market’ is a pro-cyclical institution, meaning that “rational” economic decisions, taken by individuals, may make sense to them (micro-level), but on a social level (macro-level) it is contradictory. The only way to effectively stop the cycle is for the state to come in and stop it, as it did in the Great Depression. How did we do it in the 1930s? Social movements, unions, and the spectre of a different world.

    So, all of this directly affects you, this is not some abstract thing I am talking about, you are living through this and you know as well as I do that this is a shitty system. But you must retain hope that if you do follow the rules and work hard you can get ahead. However, to hold this belief you have to willfully ignore structures that prevent that from happening, en masse. Let me put it like this, the United States claims to adhere to the notion of the ‘American Dream’, which means that your children will be better off than you, they can move up the social latter if they just work hard enough.

Unfortunately, the reality is that Americans are among the most industrious people on Earth, but they face a cycle of poverty and debt, due to low wages that forces them to work more; massive inequality, due to the inability of their incomes to pay for their schooling, latent racism, and the accumulation of debt--credit, student, housing--that forces individuals to work at any job to avoid bankruptcy. Thus, the US is actually the country with the lowest level of social mobility among the OECD nations, viz. the ‘rich’ world. Which countries have the highest, well of course, the socialistic Nordic states.

    These are only some of the reasons, and the most selfish of them at that, that you should have been protesting with us on Saturday. I saw elderly women on canes struggling to make it all the way back to Queen’s Park, I saw families, I saw recent immigrants, professors, professionals, hipsters, etc., all standing up for their rights as democratic citizens. So, what excuse did you have for not defending YOUR OWN RIGHTS? Slavoj Zizek seems to be right:

if as a consequence of our cynical pragmatism, we have lost the capacity to recognise the promise of emancipation, we in the West will have entered a post-democratic era, ready for our own Ahmadinejads. Italians already know his name: Berlusconi

FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHTS!

6/8/10

First as a tragedy, then Obama...

    The recent debacle of the Gulf spill, coupled with the impotent response to the financial crisis and the underwhelming healthcare and financial reform bills that President Obama signed into law seems to prove Marx’s claim that pivotal historical characters repeat and that they come “the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce.” Why is this so? The objective conditions were all there for Obama to become the second-FDR: the speed that the stock market declined, the furious pace at which unemployment rose, the precipitous decline in industrial production and the truly scary decline in international trade were as bad, or worse, than they were in the beginning phases of the depression (http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/3421). With  much of the traditional forces of ‘laissez-faire’ capital being in state hands, or bailed out by the state, Obama had greater leverage than FDR ever did to structurally change the makeup of American capitalism. Thus, not unreasonably, many people had hopes that Obama would become the second FDR, in that he would challenge not only the ideological, but the material base of dominant capital’s stranglehold over the economy and the state.

    Like FDR, Obama won a land-slide election on a wave of proto-populist resentment and ‘hope’--it helped that the opponent, McCain, like Hoover, was seen as incompotent--; however, that wave, although intense, lacked a true leader and quickly fizzled out. Obama certainly inspired a nation, if not a planet, that not only could a African-American of mixed lineage could make it to the presidency--fulfilling part of MLK’s American dream--, but it was seen as a time for America’s renewal from the dark recesses of the Bush administration that had put the United States on a veritable ‘Road to Serfdom’ in an Orwellian journey proclaiming that ‘slavery is freedom’.

    Obama, however, as I stated earlier, is not a ‘true leader’, in a populist sense. The mass movement that Obama nurtured throughout his campaign seemed to have disappeared, being replaced by the ‘Tea Party’--astroturf-- movement. Obama certainly played lip-service to the hopes of the American people. For instance, in his inauguration speech, for example, Obama reiterated one of the key tenants of American progressivism,

    Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth     and expand freedom is unmatched. But this crisis has reminded us that     without a watchful eye, the market     can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.


In a technocratic, de-politicized way, this makes sense; but it fundamentally lacks the necessary component of a clear antagonist, viz. an agent who stands in the way of the total ‘suturation’ of the ‘people’ from the calamity of crisis that undermined the entire symbolic and economic order, which the antagonist caused. Obama’s use of the term ‘prosperous’ is an ambiguous one; certainly considering that a) ‘prosperous’ has a positive connotation, suggesting some chance of future reconciliation and, b) Obama was lauding the ability of American’s to become ‘prosperous’, via the ‘American Dream’, that it effectively means nothing. Obama ceded the ground to the banks and other corporations by not calling them out, by name, for their wrong-doings.

    The same could not be said of FDR during his inauguration speech in 1933:

    Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils     of the old order; there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be     an end to speculation with other people’s money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound     currency.

Here FDR clearly states two things, first, the taint in the body politic is not external, but internal: American finance capital. Second, FDR makes it clear that there are exploiters and ‘underdogs’ in a structurally unfair system, or as he calls it, in the heart of the “evils of the old order.” Therefore, FDR, unlike Obama, was then able to articulate a clear demarcation between good/evil, between the people and the tyrants and by doing so, FDR was able to radically re-found American society by creating a genuine popular movement.

    And this leads us to the abject failure of ‘consensus’ politics in the post-Cold War era, where antagonism and ideology has supposedly died and the search for ‘technocratic’ solutions dominate. This hegemonic form of politics, otherwise known as ‘triangulation’, has undermined the ability of citizens to change their society through politics proper and has accepted the logic and arguments of capital; indeed, if technocratic, ‘pragmatic’ solutions are sought, the answer, by definition, resides with existing powers and their ideological biases. FDR realized that politics is not meant to be pragmatic, but transformative and interventionist; Obama clearly has not, and does not intend to.

    The limits of Obama’s progressivism is that of a corporate progressivist, which is to say that Obama funnels public money, via ersatz Keynesianism, into the hands of corporations in an attempt to ‘stimulate’ the macro-economy, without fundamentally changing the structure of power relations in the economy that created the mess in the first place. Thus, in order to bring about growth, Obama cannot ‘rock the boat’ too much, because ultimately he is at the mercy of capital’s volunteerism in terms of investment--a strategy that, so far, is not working very well. FDR did not wait for capital to invest, but rather, went ahead and directly hired millions of Americans in the WPA and sought to, through the NRA, to stimulate industrial production through direct state intervention in the price and labour markets. Thus, Obama has accumulated a huge deficit, growing debt  and unemployment is still lingering at 10%, that is excluding the millions of long-run unemployed and discouraged workers that could push the real unemployment rate upwards of 18%. Therefore, has neoliberalism really died? No, Obama still depends on the market to do all the work, he just engages in some ‘lemon socialism’ bailing out the rich in hopes they will invest and bring growth; isn’t that what trickle-down economics is all about?

    Thus, in my opinion, the greatest damage Obama has done is two-fold, first, he has used a genuine populist movement and its tactics to do exactly what they did not want, i.e., support for corporations via bailouts, off-shore drilling concessions, supporting ‘clean coal’, allowing insurance and big pharma to help write the healthcare reform bill and taking off the table, from the very beginning, the ‘public option’. And secondly, he used the passions of the people to effectively strengthen the hold of corporations over the economy and the state, and now supported by explicit and implicit government largesse--bailouts, subsidies, etc.--to secure their profits at the cost of future public investments in 'use value', i.e. education, healthcare, etc. To sum up, quoting Robert Reich:

    The interesting question is why the president, who says he wants to get “tough” on banks, has also turned     his back on changing the structure of American banks — opting for a regulatory approach instead...It’s     almost exactly like health care reform. Ideas for changing the structure of the health-care industry — a     single payer, Medicare for all, even a so-called “public option” — were all jettisoned by the White House     in favor of a complex set of regulations that left the old system of private for-profit health insurers in place.     The final     health care act doesn’t even remove the exemption of private insurers from the nation’s antitrust     laws...Regulations don’t work if the underlying structure of an industry — be it banking or health care —     got us into trouble in the first place. Wall Street’s big banks are just too big, and their ability to draw on     commercial deposits for investment banking activities, including derivatives, will make them even bigger.     It will also subject the economy to greater and greater risks in the future. No amount of regulation can cure     that...A regulatory rather than structural approach to deep-seated problems in complex industries like     banking and health care is also vulnerable to the inevitable erosion that occurs when industry lobbyists     insert themselves into the regulatory process. Tiny loopholes get larger. Delays get longer. Legislative     words are warped and distorted to mean what industry wants them to mean.

(http://robertreich.org/post/628324698/obamas-regulatory-brain)

Let the farce continue...

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