The shutdown: Day two

Norman Pollack’s recent description of the impasse rings true:

The “shutdown issue,” presently mired in the political-ideological battle between the Far Right and the Less-Far Right (House Republicans and Administration Democrats), has little to do with the social welfare of the American people, and instead reveals discernible differences only on the degrees of sophistication informing the programs of each in their determined assistance to corporate capitalism. Republicans in this tableau (a staged presentation going back decades in the roles assumed by each side) are the visceral fascists, striking out at government without realizing how much it helps, assists, and protects business and banking, while Democrats actively, yet with becoming liberal rhetoric to hide from themselves their delusions and treachery, take help, assistance, and protection to a higher level of systemic interpenetration between business and government by means of a regulatory framework written by the affected interests.

Pollack considers the shutdown to be an opportunity:

Shutdown, ideally, equals wake-up, an exposure of widespread impoverishment on one hand, widespread waste, corruption of democratic institutions, and military aggression pure-and-simple on the other. If nothing more, scaring the folks at Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs until the legislative conflict is papered over, is worth the candle, considering that nothing will be done for the poor in any case.

But it should prove to be an opportunity missed by those who need to act to bring Superpower to heel:

Sequestration will ensure the lifeblood of the current American polity and economy, militarism attached to the continuing program of global hegemony, so that neither Republicans nor Democrats find urgency in resolving the present stalemate—and in fact, holding the bottom one-fourth of the people hostage to the utter good will of the political system and the consolidated wealth standing behind it, as the source for a solution, is a good lesson in proper obedience, deportment, citizenship. Dangle just enough social- welfare anticipated goodies before the people to ensure quiescence while simultaneously magnifying ideological differences that hardly exist, and one has the perfect formula keeping the masses distracted from the main show—not shutdowns or debt ceilings, but a foreign policy of global capitalist expansion geared to US-defined financial, monetary, and trade advantages, coupled with necessary regime change for their realization, all wrapped in a framework of massive surveillance at home and the quickening paces for demanding patriotism and conformity.

Today, political accountability originates in the streets. Democracy also. Both originate in the streets because America’s electoral mechanism, its judicial practices and its Congress have proved themselves incapable of protecting the citizenry from the government and, of course, the world from America’s empire. But public action of this kind is now risky and even mortally dangerous. Nevertheless the appearance of anti-system social movements and public protest motivated by a system-critical political culture appear to be necessary conditions for the country if it is to move beyond the current situation.

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The issue recently addressed by Alfredo Lopez is net neutrality and the work some corporations perform which is meant to undermine this practice. Those corporations are mostly the largest providers of retail broadband services to end users — that is, to common consumers. They wish to impose a model of broadband provision which mimics the model they use when providing cable television access. In other words, cable providers want to charge consumers economic rents beyond the costs and profits they now earn when they provide simple and direct internet access. The issue at stake is not only a moral-economic one, for this profit-motivated attack on net neutrality entails the existence of a power to determine who sees what while surfing the internet, when they see it, how they see it and at what cost. It is no stretch at all to claim that some cable companies wish to become censors. This is the power they want the federal government to give them. Thus, Lopez asks:

Do you trust huge corporations to protect your access to all the information you need and want? Do you trust them to protect your ability to give everyone else access to information you want to spread?

The answer, unless you routinely purchase Brooklyn Bridge shares, is “no”. They can’t be trusted with the power over your right to communicate. They shouldn’t ever be trusted with that power. And the Constitution of this country makes clear that they aren’t trusted.

To be sure, the federal government was also considered an untrustworthy source of social-moral regulation, and thus Congress was prohibited from making any “…law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These rights were soon attacked by a fraction of the Founders. The federal government still threatens to undermine these rights. Today, as we know, the private powers, as found, for instance, in the possession of some corporations, are so massive that they dwarf the powers feared by the authors and ratifiers of the First Amendment. We should fear private power too.

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This is just a part of Norman Pollack’s apt assessment of Edward Snowden‘s impact on American politics:

One person can make a difference in the affairs of state. 21st century political civilization has become habituated to international relations as the province of mega-units in something akin to an uneasy, disturbed condition of equipoise, in which underlying structural-economic-ideological forces, prone to confrontation, have become artificially muted: a surface of politesse, seething beneath, intended to disguise national strivings for power….In this setting, individuals, until very recently, did not appear to matter, at least those excluded from positions of power—the vast majority of humankind, for whom the role of passivity coincided with the rise of mass, centrally directed technologies and organization, foreordained in practice to dwarf individual identity and sense of actuation in shaping their lives.

Massive and socially complex institutions dwarf the persons subject to them. They make real the boast, “There is no alternative.” Yet,

[a]n individual, alone, powerless at the outset, has spoken out, and doing so, has shaken the foundations of power. This, more than a high point in the record of whistle-blowers, though intimately related to it, marks an epochal moment in the history of American freedom — or the search for it! It mustn’t be allowed to slip by as a result of the chorus of denunciation, from POTUS on down through all the usual suspects, Democrats and Republicans alike. Snowden has raised privacy into the pantheon of constitutional rights it deserves to be, as the index of societal health and individual personhood — something all the nefarious interventions, drone strikes, CIA-JSOC missions of subversion, indefinite detentions, have sought to obliterate from the popular consciousness, and until now, partially succeeded in doing.

SURVEILLANCE is not accidental strategy, but rather the cutting edge of individuals’ self-pacification, a well-tested mechanism of social control. One hesitates to speak, then even to think; one chooses one’s associates warily, lest found on someone’s list, the all-pervasive fear of being watched, dissected, analyzed by the prying eyes of the State, now a government-empowered and -legitimated National Security Agency (and multiple other intelligence agencies, along with such legislative onslaughts as TALON, CIFA, TIAP, and don’t forget MATRIX, Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, some of which going even too far for Congress’s reactionary taste), fully capable of spying on and retrieving the most intimate conversations between people hitherto unsuspecting of eavesdropping.

Political rot pervades the land. Our leaders are vicious. They care not one bit for justice or the good. What we need is fresh air”

Snowden blows to smithereens the pious claims of American Exceptionalism, a city on the hill made up of political demagogues, snoopers, voyeurs, mercenaries, and the scavengers in our midst, supercomputers to the ready, armed with preconceived notions of enemies lurking in the dark, a wholesale assemblage of vile operatives who are cloaked in the Flag, seemingly unassailable — until one person came along to reveal the public garbage masking itself as national security….The nation, whether it knows it or not, is indebted to Snowden’s bravery and moral conscience.

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Serge Halimi, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, wrote:

Some revelations come as little surprise. It’s not really news that some politicians love money and like to spend time with those who have lots of it. Or that they sometimes behave like a caste that is above the law. Or that the tax system favours the affluent, and that the free circulation of capital enables them to stash their cash in tax havens.

The disclosure of individual transgressions should lead to scrutiny of the system that created them. But in recent decades, the world has been changing at such a pace that it has outstripped our analytical capacity. With each new event — the fall of the Berlin Wall, the emergence of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), technological advances, financial crises, Arab revolutions, European decline — experts have fallen over themselves to announce the end of history or the birth of a new world order.

Beyond these premature birth and death notices, three main, more or less universal, tendencies have emerged which warrant initial exploration: the marked rise in social inequality, the disintegration of political democracy and the decline of national sovereignty. Every new scandal is like a pustule on a sickly body: it allows us to see each element of this trio re-emerge separately and operate together. The overall situation could be summed up thus: governments allow their political systems to drift towards oligarchy because they are so dependent on the mediation of an affluent minority (who invest, speculate, hire, fire and lend). If governments balk at this abandonment of the popular mandate, international pressure from concerted financial interest ensures they topple.

Oligarchy, Halimi suggests, is scarcely incompatible with a modern democracy. Both can coexist within a social system. This point, the uncomplicated compatibility of oligarchy and democracy, has slowly moved to the forefront since December, 1991, the moment at which Bush the Elder’s New World Order emerged in its purest form. Our modern oligarchs rule indirectly, by capturing a political elite which, although elected by the demos, depends on the former for resources and guidance. The oligarchs thus rule because of the political power generated by their enormous wealth.

The United States, of course, provides a special case of this general condition. Today it is the only global empire, an unmatched military colossus and a country which sits beyond the rule of law, according to its self-understanding. It also remains exceptionally wealthy and provides the world with its commonly used reserve currency. Sheldon Wolin depicted it as having an inverted totalitarian system, that is, as an ‘as if’ democracy embedded within an empire and a stagnant economy. Democracy in America today produces results that mostly affirm oligarchic demands, a system of markets strongly distorted by finance capital and the prerogative powers of the security-surveillance apparatus. A political commitment to economic austerity and massive wealth inequality, to the imprisonment of the poor as a means of social control and to imperial domination at home and abroad makes the United States a leader among the many countries committed to this kind of democracy. Democratic elections remain in effect. They are, however, ineffective mechanisms for holding the powerful accountable. They are, instead, noisy spectacles which generate a weak kind of political legitimacy for the governed and a politically effective legitimacy for the social system as a whole. This system legitimating originates in the common realization that little to nothing can be done to successfully resist the irresistible force which is society.

Americans ought to consider these points before they vote, whenever they listen to their political leaders and when they wonder how they can make it through the year.

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As a response to the post-Boston Lockdown euphoria, Andrew Levine writes:

For anyone who watched the World Trade Center collapse on television in the days after September 11, 2001, the repetitive display of pictures of the terror attack on the Boston Marathon was déja vu all over again.

Not having been there, I can’t judge the mood, but reports of the demonstrations after the capture of nineteen year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were disturbingly familiar too. The chant — “USA, USA” — recalled the reaction to the news that Barack Obama’s assassins had finally gotten to Osama Bin Laden and dumped his body into the sea — in time for the upcoming elections.

Perhaps the comparison is unfair. As in New York and Washington after 9/11, the crowd was surely expressing solidarity with the victims and also relief that the ordeal was finally over. Civic pride, an estimable virtue, was on display too.

And even if the demonstrations had a jingoistic tinge, people cooped up inside all day watching Wolff Blitzer can justifiably plead mitigating circumstances. It requires fortitude to endure mindless commentary masquerading as journalism — cable news, in other words — and not run amok.

Greek tragedies, those of Aeschylus especially, recount the (fragile) triumph of civilization over primitive longings for revenge. This is the basis for the rule of law and the monumental advances that follow from it.

Too bad for us, and for the world, that, under the leadership of our two twenty-first century Presidents, the Lesser Evil one especially, we Americans seem to be abandoning lessons learned nearly two and a half millennia ago.

It isn’t just the rule of law that George W. Bush and Barack Obama have put in jeopardy. Under their leadership, ours is becoming a “civilization” that, without shame, uses revenge as a pretext for war.

It would be wrong to claim that war-making is the only project at which the United States excels. The United States mostly loses the wars it fights. To be sure, the Pentagon can destroy states and societies. But it leaves wastelands ruled by militaristic kleptocracies in its wake.

And what of Boston today? Levine continues:

An entire metropolis in lockdown? Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of militarized police arrayed against a lone wounded kid who, it turns out, was bleeding almost to death under a tarp covering a boat in someone’s driveway?

Austerity got left behind. Millions for the illusion of “homeland security,” not one penny for anything that actually makes people better off!

Events like the Boston Marathon Bombing and its aftermath are as significant as they are bizarre. They point to a future wherein the security-surveillance apparatus often and openly impinges on America’s somewhat civil everyday life, that is, to a future moment when our inverted totalitarian system becomes an obvious dictatorship. This is one implication that can be identified in the massive official response to the wounded fugitive, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Tsarnaev brothers were considered members of Boogey Man’s legion. Uncle Sam — Superpower! — had to take the revenge in order to cleanse himself of the stain generated by the bombing. The prodigious waste of money involved was as necessary as the initial dénouement, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture. There is always money ready at hand for such projects, even in an age of planned deprivation.

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In Obama’s America, each day is Halloween. The “lesser people” (Alan Simpson) should be afraid, very afraid! Why? Uncle Sam is bankrupt. He lives merely on the kindness of strangers. Only painful actions can remedy this situation.

Uncle Sam, you see, has long suffered from Affluenza. While the condition is often mistaken for a state of healthy well-being, the illness can be terminal. There are limits. They need to be respected. Austerity looms. The open question before Americans today: What kind of austerity will we have? The common answer amounts to this: Uncle Sam’s Affluenza would be fatal but for the remedies which a public commitment to fiscal austerity can provide.

The medicine is harsh and drastic, but necessary.

Or, so it is often claimed by a large fraction of America’s political and economic elite. Bob Urie, on the other hand, points out that:

The scare tactics being used to cut social insurance depend on the public’s misunderstanding of several related issues. In the first, the U.S. isn’t ‘broke’ because it can create money as needed — ask yourself: how were the bank bailouts funded? Next: what is an ‘entitlement’ when existing government policy overwhelmingly benefits the rich through favorable tax treatment, cost-plus government contracts, Federal Reserve bailouts and government guarantees of the banks. ‘Free markets’ have nothing to do with how the wealthy became so. The fight over ‘entitlements’ is over how government expenditures are allocated, not over their ‘scarcity.’

Urie suggests that the rich have prevailed in the democratic class struggle and now wish to deepen and intensify their exploitation of the “lesser people,” using the federal state and its fiscal situation as their hammer:

Social Security has an income ‘cap’ of $110,000 above which no deduction is made. A billionaire who became rich by sending jobs overseas — by firing and lowering the wages of labor, pays a smaller proportion of his or her income into Social Security than does the worker whose wages have been reduced. And by reducing the wages of labor, workers are left with less to pay in to these social insurance programs through payroll taxes. The problem with Social Security and Medicare is that a small group of connected plutocrats have ‘entitled’ themselves to far more of what labor produces. How often has the deficit ‘crisis’ been raised when there is a war to be fought for multi-national oil companies or a corporate welfare scheme like the bank bailouts to be paid for?

And this all ties back to Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act — if he and his corporate supporters were truly interested in fiscal discipline they would have pushed for far less costly ‘Medicare for all.’ Instead Mr. Obama pursued a deal with private health insurers that includes (sic) a ‘profit’ above the cost of a government program. Those wanting to argue the political infeasibility of Medicare for all are now confronted with a ‘liberal’ Democratic President who believes he can cut the programs that most of us have paid into under known terms for decades. If doing this is politically feasible while building a rational public health care system isn’t, we are truly doomed.

Doomed? Yes….

Ultimately Mr. Obama, like his ‘opponent’ Mitt Romney, is but an apparatchik in a class war launched by the rich against the rest of us. Left out of the contrived nonsense about an ‘entitlement’ society is who exactly is entitled. Were the government spending the rich live off of under the knife there would be no argument of scarcity — we have the wars, the bailouts and corporate welfare to prove it. But social insurance programs stand between over one hundred million of our citizens and destitution. And these are programs we have collectively paid for — they aren’t a ‘gift’ as the rich and their servants in government would have us believe.

Even the ‘gifts’ of income transfers, support for education and public transportation, Medicaid, subsidized housing, occupational training, works programs, etc. are not lacking in social benefits which directly and indirectly improve the quality of life enjoyed by every American. Every American would benefit from a fair and humane society, from a better standard of living. Such a society serves a common and public good. Who, after all, wants to watch the homeless die on the street for want of food and medical care? How might the United States compete with the emerging Asian economic powers when its education system, long the envy of the world at large, falters because of a lack of fiscal and political support? Who wants to bring children into the world when they will intimately know insecurity and want?

But the Nobel Laureate Americans just reelected wishes to create neither a fair nor humane society. He is a system politician who serves his various masters. The latter are cruel and greedy. Americans of the lesser kind along with the world at large deserve much better than Barack Obama. They truly need a man much better than him.

 

America’s democracy deficit

It is reasonable to expect the democratic mechanism — the vote — to produce results which reflect the aggregated will of the electorate. In the United States this goal is rarely achieved because of the majoritarian, winner-take-all system (plurality) commonly used therein. A system of proportion representation better captures the diversity of active political positions in a society. The United States, of course, has a plurality system, and one notable feature of this kind of voting system is its propensity to produce a two-party system. Such a system limits feasible voting strategies to choosing candidates from one of the two major parties. The United States today has a party system that can be characterized as a party duopoly. Moreover, this duopoly has degenerated to such a degree that America can be reasonably characterized as an inverted totalitarianism, an apolitical system in which policy outcomes reflect an elite consensus about what is to be accomplished. The demos typically lacks the capacity to use the democratic mechanism to alter policy. It merely provides a paper thin legitimacy to whatever government holds power.

Bearing the above in mind, consider the following data from the recent election:

  • The House Republicans now have 234 seats while House Democrats have 193. As of this moment, the Republican Party has a 41 seat edge over the Democratic Party.
  • The Republican Party tallied 53,822,442 votes in the recent House elections; the Democratic Party tallied 54,301,095 votes. The Democratic Party thus generated a 478,653 vote edge over the Republican Party.

The House was meant to be the people’s chamber…. Although candidates could seek only some House seats in the recent election and the results could change, I find it difficult to conclude that the next House will actually represent the will of the people in the government.