Monday, November 05, 2012

Obama, Republican fanaticism and the politics of "total capitalism" in the US

Yes, in the United States we're shackled to a two-party system. But I don't spend a lot of time trying to chew off my hand because of it. Progressive, prolabor politics right now depends on an inside-outside strategy, with progressive groups pushing Democratic officeholders to do the right thing and progressive challenges in party primaries to hold Blue Dog Democrats accountable.

The upcoming fight over the Grand Bargain to cut benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid could well provide some decisive moments. Any and all Democrats who vote to cut benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid deserved to be challenged in the primary in their next race. Aspiring Congressional, Senate and Presidential candidates will have a chance to stake out a reputation for themselves as defenders of the popular programs by opposing Obama and the Republicans on efforts to cut benefits on them.

Yes, that will mean explicitly opposing the Democratic President. As Charlie Pierce for once understates it, "There is still justifiable skepticism about [Obama's] hunger for a Grand Bargain that will leave 70 years of Democratic social policy in ashes." (For Obama, the Clock's Running in His Own Head Now Esquire Politics Blog 11/04/2012)

So it's worth keeping an eye on some of the less flattering views of Obama from the left side of things, even if "left" in the Democratic Party at the moment means that you you oppose cutting benefits for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Although we Americans know, because our politicians of both parties tell us so all the time, that we're the Greatest Country In The World and everyone wants to be like us, to people in parliamentary democracies the two-party system we have can seem incredibly constricting in limiting voter choice and setting the acceptable range of respectable public discussion. Jakob Augstein writes in US-Präsidentschaftswahl Untergang des amerikanischen Imperiums Spiegel Online 05.10.2012 (translations are mine):

Romney the filthy rich investment banker and Obama the cultivated human rights lawyer are two faces of a political system that no longer have very much to do with democracy as we understand it. Democracy includes choice. But the Americans don't have any choice at all. Obama provides the evidence. When he took office almost four years ago, that looked like a new American beginning. But that was a misunderstanding. Obama did not close the camp in Guantanamo, he did not lift the immunity for the perpetrators of war crimes from the Bush Administration, he did not regulate the financial markets, and in the election [2012] there was hardly any more mention of the climate. The generals, the bureaucracy, the banks, industry - against their power all the power of the people is nothing, and the President is powerless against them.
This is overblown. The new financial regulation of Dodd-Frank were inadequate; he proceeds to say that credit default swaps (CDS) were adequately restricted, and that's true. That leaves a huge vulnerability for the banks with CDS's left in the shadow banking system.

But that last sentence quoted seems to say that the US is simply an oligarchy and there's nothing people can do about it. It's comments like this that make it understandable have some people can go from being a supposed hardline leftist to a hardline rightwinger. To turn his statement that "[t]he generals, the bureaucracy, the banks, industry - against their power all the power of the people is nothing, and the President is powerless against them," into a rightwing statement you need only add the words and that's a good thing.

But he puts this as a prominent criticism, and that's excellent: "Obama did not close the camp in Guantanamo, he did not lift the immunity for the perpetrators of war crimes from the Bush Administration." This to me is potentially the most damaging of Obama's failures, because it goes directly to the rule of law and the Constitutional order. The one thing that Cheney's torture program needed that his Administration and the courts hadn't provided was a successor Administration that declined to prosecute the crimes. And the Obama Administration was and is obligated by international treaty to prosecute known torture perpetrators; not even prosecutorial discretion is supposed to stop them for prosecuting. He failed to do so. That failure, a very conscious decision justified as Look Forward Not Backward, is already having far reaching effects, from emboldening the most radical Republicans to creating a climate of impunity among corporate criminals.

And the next part of Augstein's article is a pretty straightforward description:

Not even the famous credit default swaps, which tore down the investment house Lehman Brothers and lead the Western economy itself to the brink, not even they were banned or even only better regulated.

It is alleged that Obama wanted more but couldn't get it. But what role does that really play?

We want to believe that Obama has been blocked by the rightists in his own country. And it actually the case, that the fanatics on which Mitt Romney has made himself dependent have thrown everything overboard that distinguished the West: science and logic, reason and moderation or even simple decency. That hate the gays, the weak and the state, the suppress women and persecute the immigrants, and their moralism on abortion doesn't stop even with the victims of rape. They are the Taliban of the West.
Augstein uses the phrase "total capitalism" to describe the American economic system of the moment. I'm not sure what all that might imply, but it strikes me as kind of vague. Maybe it's just a variation about the chronic (and shallow) European complaint about American materialism. Still, he's trying to explain this phenomenon:

The truth is that we no longer understand America. When we look at it from Germany, from Europe, we see a foreign [and/or strange] culture. The political system is in the hands of Capital and its lobbyists. The checks and balances have failed. And a perverse mixture of irresponsibility, greed for profit and religious zealotry dominates public opinion.
If "public opinion" is taken to mean elite opinion, and the dominant Beltway Village/punditocracy opinion, that would be more precise.

Dan Kervick also provides a coherent left criticism of Obama's first term in Defeat Mitt Romney New Economic Perspectives 11/04/2012:

I am voting on Tuesday to defeat Mitt Romney and the Republican Party. In my view, Romney represents the very worst aspects of American capitalism. Unlike so many of our politicians in Washington, he is not just a venal and servile defender of the barbarian plutocracy that runs this country. He is actually a ranking chief of the tribe. In his world of compulsive financial plunder, human beings and their labor are just chattel resources to be bought, traded, dismantled, used, abused, hired, fired and sold in the avaricious pursuit of personal gain. Now some might believe this approach to life is truly the American way. But whether that depressing proposition is true or not, the America of Romney’s hyper-capitalist pillage not the America I want to live in; and while I continue to breathe the air for which, so far, we do not have to pay, I will keep struggling against that darker America.

Romney famously expressed contempt for the 47% of Americans who do not measure up to his princely standards of serene and affluent independence from government. If anything, I believe that percentage vastly understates the number of Americans who mean nothing at all to him. [my emphasis]
Matt Stoller has managed to annoy a lot of liberals even with his criticism of Obama, including these two Salon pieces: Progressive Case Against Obama 10/27/2012; Why is the left defending Obama? 11/03/2012.

In the later article, he writes:

Obama came into office with a massive mandate, overwhelming control of Congress, hundreds of billions of TARP money to play with, the ability to prosecute Wall Street executives and break their power, and the opportunity for a massive stimulus. Most importantly, the country was willing to follow – the public believed his calls for change. Yet, instead of restructuring the economy and doing obvious things like hardening infrastructure against global warming, he entrenched oligarchy. This was explicit. Obama broke a whole series of campaign promises that would have helped the middle class. These promises would have reduced household debt, raised the minimum wage, stopped outsourcing, and protected workers. He broke these promises for a reason – Barack Obama uses his power for what he believes in, and Barack Obama is a conservative technocrat. Obama sided with Wall Street. He probably made the foreclosure crisis worse with a series of programs designed to help banks but marketed to help homeowners. These were his policies, they reflected the views of his most valued advisors like Robert Rubin and his Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Moreover, he’s proud of this record – the only mistake he cites in his first term is inadequately communicating how effective he has been, focusing too much on getting the policy right. [my emphasis]
He's obviously making some judgment calls here, e.g., how politically feasible a more expansive stimulus proposal would have been. (I agree with his judgment on that one.)

But his basic evaluation of Obama's approach and policy is a fair and sensible one: "Barack Obama is a conservative technocrat." You could also call him a neoliberal technocrat, which pretty much comes to the same thing. The fact that the Republican Party is promoting plutocratic fantasies (Abolish FEMA!) that they call "conservative" confuses the terminology. But the Democratic Party under Obama is functioning as a center-right party opposed by a far-right, hardline obstructionist, Christian Right Republican Party.

This is also an important observation from that piece:

Consider that there is a crisis right now, in the Frankenstorm, Sandy. Parts of lower Manhattan are still without power, and much of the Eastern seaboard will never be the same. Late night comedians, NBC, and even Businessweek are jumping up and down and screaming that this catastrophic storm is a result of climate change. Yet, on Monday, no major environmental groups except Bill McKibben’s 350.org featured Sandy on its home page. These groups, from the Sierra Club to the Environmental Defense Fund – focused instead on the safety of chemicals, saving the Osprey, voting for Obama, or other such problems. As Brad Johnson noted, almost every left-wing journalist or advocate was equivocating as to whether climate change was the cause. This is the moment of leverage, when an organized advocacy space should have been arguing for a massive emergency mitigation and adaptation efforts. Tens of billions of dollars will flow into the Northeast, this money could be used for rebuilding unsustainable Con Ed, or for powering the New York with entirely renewable and robust energy. Instead, the right-wing, including Democrats like MSNBC contributor Ed Rendell, are working to undermine environmental, labor rules in the reconstruction while privatizing rebuilt infrastructure. [my emphasis]
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