Friday, December 10, 2010

Politics of despair (2): What happens now?

I heard Jerry Brown in the early 1990s say something to the effect that people were not thinking much about how the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc Communist regimes would affect our own society. We now know what has happened 21 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. You would have to apply some secular Calvinist doctrine of historical predestination to say that what has happened was inevitable. But a couple of huge trends stand out.

The Cold War ended. The Long War continued. Andrew Bacevich borrowed that phrase “Long War” from the Cheney-Bush Administration to describe the long-term continuity in American foreign and military policy from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism. Joseph Stiglitz rightly says, "We’ve continued as if the Cold War never came to an end, spending as much on defense as the rest of the world combined." The US is now far more interventionist than we were during the Cold War – and that’s saying a lot! Currently we have two hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we're committing what in basically all previous human history were understood as acts of war in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and who-knows-where-else. Assassinations have become a routine part of US policy again.

This has an enormous effect on our politics, most destructively in the the vast expansion of the national security state and the mentality of fear and conformity that comes with it. Who would have thought in 1989 that two decades down the road that the United States, which prides itself as being "the leader of the free world", would have adopted massive electronic surveillance at home on a scale scarcely dreamed of by the East German Stasi? And that both parties would eagerly embrace it? Who would have thought that we would have taken the Soviet Union's place as the invading power in Afghanistan, that we would be fighting there longer than the USSR did against what we then called brave mujahedeen freedom fighters and now call The Terrorists?

The second major trend that has been defining has been the wholesale adoption of neoliberal, "free market" ideology by both parties. Also known as the Washington Consensus, this has been the driving ideology of globalization. And it includes weakening the rights of labor, driving down wages, deregulation of even the most polluting and financially toxic businesses, a nonstop drive to cut back or privatize government services, and a particularly mindless obsession with balancing national budgets. The conservatives serve it up in raw form. The role in the neoliberal scheme of the traditional left parties including the Democrats is to sell these socially destructive policies to their traditional constituencies, especially labor.

And now we are in what appears to be a second Great Depression, one whose devastating effects on employment are likely to continue for years. It was ushered in by the Predator State practices of the Cheney-Bush Administration. But now not only President Obama’s Democratic Administration in the United States by many of the largest economic players in the world including Germany are prescribing just the kind of medicine that Herbert Hoover applied with well-known results to the opening stages of the Great Depression. Including the grimly historic event of a Democratic President embracing Social Security Phaseout while signing on for massive tax subsidies to billionaires. Joan Walsh greeted the President’s tax deal with the Republicans saying, “this deal makes me feel like I live in an oligarchy.”

Which brings us to the politics of despair. Which I think is likely to be a defining part of American politics during this depression.

The phrase “politics of despair” doesn’t imply to me a feeling of desperation but rather politics in the face of conditions in which needs are perceived as urgent but no immediate prospect of their satisfaction is at hand.

In this depression, millions of people in America are feeling desperate because they face desperate situations: unemployment, serious illness with insufficient health insurance (or none), mortgages that are under water (more than the value of the property mortgaged). But I’m not making a psychological point so much as a political one. When we say a person is feeling or acting desperate, we usually mean something like they’re flailing around irrationally. But it’s not irrational to recognize a desperate situation for what it is. On the contrary, it would be irrational and unwise to not recognize it.

Drift in government comforts the comfortable. It favors individuals and companies who are developing ways to evade government regulation, as with the rise of the shadow banking system. If conservatives don’t get everything they want from a Republican President, they still get drift on regulations and light-to-non-enforcement of existing regulations. Progressives, on the other hand, need the government to act to sensibly balance out developments in the economy. Drift and “gridlock” are more pernicious for progressive interests than for conservative ones. Especially 20 years after both parties embraced the neoliberal model of globalization.

That is a big reason why I don’t see the Tea Party movement as part of the politics of despair, no matter how much they wail about feeling they are losing their country. Because most of those identifying with the Tea Party are loyal Republican white folks, older and more affluent than the average American. Plus it’s largely a Party astroturf movement, though the Party bigwigs have found that their little Frankenstein monster is more of a challenge to herd than they thought. The Tea Partiers are predominantly the comfortable who fear their comfort may be jangled. They are practicing the politics of fear more than the politics of despair.

It not exactly novel to speak of “despair” in the current context. Paul Krugman wrote just this month, “It has been 22 months since I gave vent to a growing sense of despair about the US response; events have not, I’m sorry to say, proved me wrong.” But even Krugman has been sounding more and more like he’s waving his arms and staring around wildly in shock and amazement at what’s been going on with the Obama Administration. Krugman has always been skeptical of Obama’s talk about bipartisanship, i.e., worried that he might really think that major cooperation with today’s Republican Party was actually feasible. And his fears have proved to have been more than justified.

In the previous post I gave a number of examples of what I see as expressions of the politics of despair in the current moment. It will surely take some surprising forms. But based on our recent experience, I would expect to see the following.

  • Attempts to establish an alternative organizational structure for left-liberal politics distinct from the present Democratic Party. This could mean the immediate formation of a third party such as Jamie Galbraith has begun advocating. It could mean a greater formalizing of the House Progressive Caucus in some way, extending it to the Senate and even to state and local officials.
  • Renewed efforts to create an independent progressive infrastructure to partially balance off the think-tanks, training organizations, partisan media and shell groups that the "conservative movement" built up after 1964
  • More independent Democratic-leaning campaign organizations; these arrangements in the 2004 Presidential election were judged to be sub-optimal and in 2008, Obama’s campaign persuaded major donors to support Democratic Party organizations directly. There will almost certainly be a bigger market for non-Party organizations now after the White House’s self-chosen political meltdown on Social Security and taxing billionaires.
  • Determined protests and "single-issue" campaigns by the much-maligned "special interest groups" like labor, abortion rights defenders, immigrants, and people who want to retire someday
  • An intensification of disputes over specific consequences of the depression and the pro-cyclical national fiscal policies that will postpone a robust recovery indefinitely, such as school closures, big increases in tuition and fees at public colleges, transit projects, even street maintenance
And if Obama continues to advocate for Social Security Phaseout – his embrace of the payroll tax holiday was a first step – we are likely to see some special fallout from that.

  • The AARP and other organizations who advocate for seniors and their families are likely to see some notable growth.
  • Some Democratic voters, not necessarily activists and political junkies but loyal base voters, are likely to vote for a third party in 2012. As we saw in Florida in 2000, even a small percentage of Democratic defections to a third party can have far-reaching consequences.
Some forms of consciously political action may be very surprising. It’s hard to say. We have a depression, a Democratic President who thinks that cutting budgets and phasing out Social Security are appropriate responses to it, and a national media that is downright dysfunctional in delivering news.

I would also expect that the social pathologies that are normally aggravated by extended economic hard times to increase: crime, domestic violence, deteriorating work climates. The political effects of some of those may be distant and hard to measure. I can imagine new dilemmas arising from increased worries about crime in the face of massive budget pressures on state governments, when we already have the highest percentage of our population behind bars than any other advanced country.

And while I think the Tea Party movement is largely a Republican astroturf phenomenon, not all its supporters are wealthy cynics whose main concern is to not have to pay taxes to support the country they claim to love so dearly. A general rise in social anxiety and frustration may be extremely difficult to quantify. But such developments are likely to fuel the feelings of despair – and rage and hatred and fear – that followers of the violent rightwing extremist groups encourage and exploit. In that sense, some of the more militant Tea Partiers are also part of the politics of despair.

Jamie Galbraith discusses the sad state to which two decades of neoliberalism ascendant have brought American politics and our corporate media in Casting Light on “The Moment of Truth” New Deal 2.0 12/03/2010:

The old Soviet Union had two newspapers, Pravda and Izvestia — Truth and Light — and the saying in Moscow was, “Where there is Truth, there’s no Light. And where there is Light, there’s no Truth.” It’s clear now that the Soviet Union didn’t really end.

The walls came down, and we became them.
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"It is the logic of our times
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