CAST AWAY ILLUSIONS, PART TWO
By Christopher Carrico
1. Neoliberalism & Neoconservatism in practice
One contradiction that both neo-liberals and neo-conservatives face is the difficulty of how to protect the free pursuit of liberty (especially through markets, private property, and the accumulation of wealth) from the democratic demands of the majority for social justice, intervention in the market, and the equitable distribution of wealth.
While neo-libs and neo-cons are both, in theory, against intervention into the economy by the state, both have come to be for the very aggressive use of the state when state intervention is useful for the protection of property, wealth, and entrenched power.
Paraphrasing David Harvey, I noted in this blog last month that:
As in the case of some of the classical theories of liberal democracy, neo-liberal theorists are concerned that the free functioning of the liberal economy be protected from the sometimes irrational influences of the democratic masses, whose demands for equality, a social safety net, collective ownership, or national protection could irrationally interfere with the smooth functioning of otherwise ideal liberal capitalist economies.
Following the argument put forth by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy in their book Captial Resurgent (2004), David Harvey argues that neo-liberalism is most coherent not when viewed as an economic model or as a political theory, but rather when seen as a project for the restoration or creation of capitalist class power. Hence its contradictory relationship with the state: it claims to be against state intervention, while being heavily in support of state actions that are intended to buttress the power of capitalist elites.
Neo-conservatives also put forth rhetoric against “big government” intervention into the economy, while at the same time supporting state interventions intended to protect and promote the economic interests of ruling elites. Neo-conservatism, while differing in emphasis in some ways, is perfectly in keeping with the neo-liberal goal of strengthening capitalist class power.
The reign of the free market, the unchecked power of capital, and economic and military imperialism, all create a great deal of social disruption, anomie, and chaos. The capitalist freedoms that both neo-liberals and neo-conservatives advocate are forces that are constantly threatening to tear apart the very fabric of society. (Harvey 2005: 81-86)
The neo-conservative answer to the chaos and anomie that permeates the world that the liberals created is not to question liberalism’s fundamental economic premises. Rather, neo-conservatism seeks to address the social disorder caused by capitalism by advocating a strong state with coercive powers to control “the chaos of individual interests” (Harvey: 82). In this sense, neo-conservative views of the role and function of the state are similar to those put forth by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651).
When neo-cons talk about their desire to check the “excesses” of liberalism they reveal one of the ways in which neo-conservatism in practice is as deeply contradictory as neo-liberalism in practice. By no means do neo-conservatives want to control and regulate capitalist interests (the real source of social disruption). Instead, neo-cons hope to make democratic majorities more governable through the use of a coercive state, and through an appeal to morality, religion, nationalism, and tradition.
Again, quoting David Harvey at length is worthwhile here:
… the moral values that have now become central to the neo-conservatives can best be understood as products of the particular coalition that was built in the 1970s, between elite class and business interests intent on restoring their class power, on the one hand, and an electoral base among the ‘moral majority’ of the disaffected white working class on the other. The moral values centered on cultural nationalism, moral righteousness, Christianity (of a certain evangelical sort), family values, and right-to-life issues, and on the antagonism to the new social movements such as feminism, gay rights, affirmative action, and environmentalism. (84)
These forces have gathered more strength today than ever in the US, best exemplified by the emergence of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. Furthermore, similar sets of conditions have led to similar outcomes in many parts of the world. Conservative calls for a return to tradition (and even outright calls for authoritarian governance) have been seen as answers to the chaos that has been caused by liberal capitalism. To the Tea Party, we can add the resurgence of neo-fascism in Europe, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party and other Hindu right-wing parties in India, and the rise of authoritarian states (and violent and reactionary non-state actors) in much of the Islamic world.
The evocation of national, religious, and racial solidarities in a world that was (many told us) supposed to be becoming more globalized, cosmopolitan, and tolerant, has been one serious sign of broad-based right wing politics of fear mongering. Rather than looking at structural economic problems: declining standard of living for the majority of Americans, increasing unemployment or peripheral employment, the overwhelming and unprecedented burden of debt taken on in every sector of the economy, from households, to corporations, to local, state and federal governments, etc., neo-conservatives find scapegoats in non-white immigrants (legal and illegal) from all over the world, in Islamic terrorists, and in competition for markets and resources with developing countries whose labor costs are far lower than labor costs in the U.S.
2. Cast Away Illusions, Prepare for Struggle.
Those progressives who are today disappointed in Barack Obama need to examine their worldviews, see which of their hopes were realistic in 2008, and prepare for struggle in what are most likely going to be a bitter two years ahead for American politics. As I noted in Part One of this blog, neo-liberal policy was a bi-partisan project. It was initiated in earnest in the U.S. under the administration of Ronald Reagan. However, the neo-liberal agenda was wholehearted supported by conservative and “New Democrats.” The quintessential New Democrat, of course, was President Bill Clinton – completer of the Reagan revolution.
There was very little that Barack Obama told us in the primaries and the presidential campaigns that seemed to break from the mold of the Clintonian New Democrat. Indeed, one of the things that was so striking about the knockdown, drag out fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries was that their views on policy were virtually identical to one another.
In speaking to African Americans, Barack Obama used his candidacy as evidence that Americans now lived in a “post-racial” world, and asserted a version of the culture of poverty thesis which stated that African Americans would do better in white society if they behaved in a more responsible manner.
Obama promised from the outset that he would escalate the war in Afghanistan, which is now sinking into an ever deepening quagmire, deeply affecting Pakistan (not only in the border areas). His recent visit to India was motivated in part by his wanting to court India as an ally in the fight against Islamic extremism in the region, thus exacerbating already tense relations between these two communal religious groups in South Asia. His visit involved enormous arms deals and no doubt increased tensions between Indian and Pakistan, both countries who possess nuclear weapons.
Obama’s choice of Joe Biden for the Vice-Presidency was particularly telling. A long term leader on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a well know “Liberal Hawk” who has supported every major imperial adventure that the U.S. has embarked on in his career (in the name of spreading freedom and democracy around the world – with the barrel of a gun.)
Obama immediately prioritized the bailing out of banks during the crises that began just before his election. He has been slow at beginning to help Americans whose homes are being foreclosed, at beginning jobs programs that do not reduce unemployment rates, but rather merely slow down their escalation. His “massive overhaul” of America’s healthcare system turned out to be one that might be more adequately described as “minor tinkering”
At the environmental summits in Copenhagen and in Cancun, the Obama administration did nothing but show up, and protect the interests of America’s big capitalist polluters. In the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration has either been unwilling or unable to hold BP to full accountability for the disaster.
The handling of the disaster in Haiti, with a US military presence, and thousands of NGOs on the ground has made a major disaster into an even bigger disaster than it needed to be.
Civil liberties of all kinds continue to be stripped from American citizens, and even more so, from immigrants, legal and illegal. Massive deportations and costly and ineffective border patrols are expanded year after year.
And then there was the matter of the extension of the Bush era tax cuts, and appointment this week of a former banking industry executive as Obama’s new chief of staff.
It’s not like there hasn’t been any progress, though. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed, which means that openly gay people can kill innocent Iraqis and Afghanis just like straight people are allowed to.
The question is, however, whatever led us to believe that once we elected Barack Obama as president, he would do anything other than largely pursue the politics of the same? Both major parties in the U.S. are beholden to big capital in seemingly inescapable ways. No candidate would ever make it past the early primaries if in fact she or he did have a truly progressive political agenda.
If we think historically about when real democratic change has happened in the United States, it has generally not been a gift given to the American people by the government from the top down. Rather, the expansion of rights and liberties has usually been the result of the long and hard fought struggle of organizers and activists against systems of entrenched power.
It took Abraham Lincoln a long time to realize that, in spite of his reluctance, the freeing of African slaves was going to be necessary for the North to win the Civil War. Most of the framework for recognition of trade unions, minimum wage laws, workplace safety laws, and New Deal social programs were initiated under the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. But these programs were not solely a result of the beneficence of an enlightened president. They were fought for and won through generations of militant trade union struggle, and Roosevelt probably would not have found many of these measures necessary if there had not been a massive, militant, and organized working class demanding political change.
Likewise, the Civil Right legislation written during the Kennedy Administration, and signed into law under the Johnson administration, would have never been proposed simply because of the beneficence of the ruling elites in the Kennedy Adminstration. The real work that accomplished some of the goals of the Civil Rights movement had to do with grassroots organizing, not with the empathy of Kennedy or Johnson with the struggles of the African American people.
Because we did not struggle to push the Obama towards serious political reform during the first two years of his administration, the struggle for the next two years is going to be even more difficult. We have a Congress and Senate, the majority of whom can only be described as enemies of humanity. And we have a president who caved in on many of the marginal differences he had with the Republican Party, even when there was a Democratic “super-majority” in the Congress.
Maybe the best we can hope for is that the experience of the Obama presidency will lead people to cast away the illusion that some charismatic figure will emerge from the Republican or Democratic Parties and lead us to the Promised Land. Perhaps it will become increasingly possible (as people were beginning to see leading up the Democratic Primaries in 1968), that it is not leaders who change the world, but ordinary people who find the courage to demand that something change, before it’s too late.