We’re Stole and Sold
If you credit the arguments of those on the comfortable center of the divide between rich and poor, we are currently locked in a life-or-death struggle between radical Republicans and a thin blue line of heroic Democrats who alone champion the liberal values of civilization against the rapacious hordes of Eastasia. When you’re south of the line, however, things look a bit more bleak, as the push and pull of one party against another begins to resemble increasingly a tug-of-war between Rich and Richer. While it can’t be denied that the G.O.P gets worse every year, and would only accelerate the damage they’ve done to the country if they were voted back in, the failure of the Democrats to stake out a truly oppositional position, especially in matters of economics, makes centrist cries of how much worse things would be under a Republican administration sound increasingly like Snowball asking the animals if they wanted Farmer Jones back.
In the past, Americans have known what to do when faced with a seemingly unanswerable choice between two suspiciously similar positions. It’s what got us our own country, the will to end slavery, the original Republican party, labor unions, civil rights, feminism, and a Constitution. Now, the only ones agitating for a change from the amicable buck-passing from public to private are the Occupy protestors, and they are made the subject of endless but-what-do-you-want questioning, as if the answer was not written on placards ten feet high. The liberals who ought to be their allies meet with an embarrassed shrug the unleashing of brutal police action against them, and no one much cares that weapons and techniques created by Republicans to be used against terrorist murderers are now employed by Democrats against people asking for a living wage. Even Democrats who can muster a bit of sympathy usually end up wondering aloud how the Occupiers might translate their desires into legislation, which is to say, how they might submit the very nature of their protest to the system they are protesting against, and see it transformed into a toothless, squalling nothing. One might as well have asked George Washington why he didn’t ask the House of Lords to vote on whether America might be allowed to self-govern, or ask Martin Luther King why he didn’t leave it up to white people to grant Negroes their rights when they got around to it.
It is very difficult to make the comfortable see why the uncomfortable are so upset that the choice between A and B has been reduced to a choice between A and A-. When the government seems to be addressing your interests, it is hard to put yourself in the position of a person whose interests are not being addressed, even if such persons constitute the vast majority of the population. Even as new reports surface that poverty — even poverty as defined by the entirely inadequate standards devised by our government — is on the increase in over half the country; even as unemployment remains at its worst since the Great Depression; even as private wealth reaches an obscene high water mark and public aid is at an all-time low, we are met with agreement on both sides of the so-called Great Divide that what is needed is less taxation for the rich, more austerity for the poor, a safety net for banks and big business but a reduction of Medicare and Social Security. Both sides say yes to corporate welfare and no to public assistance; both sides think unions are a relic of the industrial past; both sides agree that corporations have every right to take jobs to other countries and bring the profits back home; neither side finds it odd to allow banks to pay their executives whatever they like but strip their employees of their pensions. We are in a new Gilded Age, but the Wobblies have been replaced by the Know-Nothings, “workers unite” has given way to “I got mine”, and the robber barons still call the government the enemy, but now they line up to take a cut of the enemy’s fat.
That our political system is bought and paid for by the wealthiest of private interests seems so obvious at this point that it hardly even seems worth exploring. For all that we like to crow that only in America could Barack Obama be president, the fact is other countries routinely elect members of their working classes, while our government is essentially indistinguishable from that of the board of directors of a billion-dollar corporation. The net worth of an average congressman is over $900,000, ten times that of the average American citizen; over half of them are millionaires, a level of wealth unimaginable for tens of millions of their so-called constituency. Some fifty million Americans have no health care of any kind; all of their elected representatives have health care, which the people who elect them pay for. Almost none of them have faced the kind of economic difficulties their constituents serve on a daily basis; and yet they routinely suggest as solutions for such problems legislation that relies on shaming, humiliating and blaming the people they are charged to help for having had any problems in the first place. It is not hard to arrive at the conclusion that many of them are hostile to the very idea of government helping anyone other than themselves and their wealthy clientele; even the least politically engaged person can weigh his single vote against the $4 billion dollars spent on lobbying every year and come to the conclusion that he’d be better off staying home on Election Day.
And yet, when the difference between the parties on not only economic issues but concerns over privacy, government intrusion in private life, drug policy, police powers, and military adventurism are narrower than ever, when money is more of a corrupting influence on politics than ever, when it is a de facto agreement between both parties that privatization is always the best option, when no one seriously disputes the idea that for-profit industries are better than government at nearly everything, when the gap between rich and poor more than ever trends towards third-world numbers, it is now that we are exhorted the most to stay the course. It is now that the danger of Farmer Brown’s return is the most imminent, it is now that the Eastasian hordes are at their most ravenous, it is now that we must most flagrantly ignore the similarities between the economic policies of the two parties. This show trial nonsense seemed to hit its peak when centrist liberals gathered en masse to denounce the fifth column for voting Nader, which was the proximate cause of Bush’s victory and not that he and his cronies in the Supreme Court stole the election. Backsliding scum who dared seek a third way were to blame, just as they are to blame now for Obama turning out to be the moderate centrist technocrat he’s always been.
That’s the most galling aspect of the game at this point: just as we base our economy on the manufacturing of endless amusing gadgets and then blame poor people for buying them, we elect leaders with no special interest in the needs of the working class and then blame the working class for not voting for them. The Emanual Goldstein in this scenario is named “pragmatism”, for surely Comrade Obama would shower a largesse of government benefits on the struggling poor if it were only practical to do so. But it is not, we are assured, because of matters of compromise and triangulation and the results of deliberately pre-cooked polls and the gathering of imaginary political clout and all the other things that don’t seem to matter when the other guys are in charge. A Republican in office can summon disaster with the flick of a finger; a Democrat in office wants to do good but is surrounded by swirling phantoms of practicality that prevent him from moving an inch in any direction but the way the tide is flowing. When the G.O.P. is in power, the President is an evil wizard who crafts his every malignant thought into reality with just a twitch of the nose; when the centrists’ man is in power, the President is little more than a figurehead who we must vote for to make him feel better, even though the real power now apparently lies with the House Minority Whip or someone. (Should you think that, freed from the messy compromises required for good government, centrist millionaires suddenly become leftist agitators, look no further than the life of Bill “NAFTA” Clinton. Taking a break from his hugely lucrative speaking gigs in front of big corporations and special interest groups, he appeared at a “Fiscal Summit” where he nodded solemnly at John Boehner’s calls for austerity, blamed his own party for clinging to ‘entitlements’, and endorsed the ridiculous Bowles/Simpson plan. If you don’t think this is a glimpse into Barack Obama’s future, you’re fooling yourself.)
Ask why, if a Democratic president is going to leave you just as wanting as a Republican, you should vote for either, and you’re a quitter. Agitate for a third party and you’re a dreamer. Point out the obvious and you’re a cynic; take your dissatisfaction to the streets and you’re a thug; give voice to your misery and you’re just bitter. Demand something better and you’re lectured that the perfect is the enemy of the good, as if you’ve asked for Utopia instead of a president who thinks the needs of the elderly poor are a slightly higher priority for the government than protecting billionaire financiers from the consequences of their own behavior. Insist on reform and you are told it’s better to work within the system we have than to try and change it, as if any aspect of government were not created by people and cannot be changed by people, as if this country were not invented out of whole cloth. Point out the courage and effectiveness of progressive Democrats of the past, and you will be told that they were exceptional people who had the good fortune of exceptional circumstances, as if we were no longer capable of being exceptional, as if there are not events transpiring all over the world that make these exceptional times.
Every progressive force, every revolutionary party, every labor union and every civil rights organization has faced two kinds of opposition. The first comes from outside: the obvious enemy, the reactionary, the royalist, the capitalist, the racist, the ones who you know oppose the very idea of what you’re trying to do, who openly say that they want you to stay poor, stay occupies, stay exploited and enslaved. They are great in number but they can be beaten, and they do not bother to conceal their contempt for you. The far greater threat comes from inside: the one who preaches to the heavens that he’s on your side, but forever urges caution, trepidation, and calm. These are the ones who want smoke without fire, thunder without lightning, words without action; these are the ones who vote for leaders who will stay the course and mouth platitudes, which are free, and not cry out for movement, which is costly. These are the ones who see how Iceland rejected a technocratic solution that put the government right back in the hands of bankers, and decided it was too small a story to report; these are the ones who see how Greece is tired of austerity for the poor and splendor for the rich, and accuse them of extremist agitation against the banker’s paradise that is the Eurozone. These are the ones who consider every prior victory a fluke until it’s historically convenient to claim credit for it. These are the ones whose slogan is “not yet”, whose watchword is “later”; the ones for whom the time is never right to do what is right. We never won a thing with their help, brothers and sisters, because they take care of their own. It’s time for us to do the same.