Feb 13, 2009

A reply, with hat tips to Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald

Over at Best of the Blogs, a respondent to my cross-posted entry about Martin Wolf's piece in the Financial Times, timr, took issue with the "prematurity" of my criticism of the new President, so I thought I would elaborate. Please don't misunderstand me. I do hope that the president sees the urgency. Martin Wolf's piece jolted me, as I said, because he honed in on a problem that all leaders face in critical times.I'm not criticizing Obama as president. I am criticizing the weaknesses of an intellectual/political/plutocratic/privileged class to which he belongs.

This political class is incapable--with a few notable exceptions, like Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders and Russ Feingold, all of whom without fail are marginalized by the other members of their class--of understanding the dilemma of people in the "underclasses." I use the word carefully, I think, because at this point it is the only appropriate word to use. It includes people, for example, in the professional and technical classes and business classes whose combined incomes exceed even a quarter of a million dollars, because even they have seen a transfer of wealth to the tiny minority of the rich and super-rich who control--I might even say enforce their beliefs--in the vast majority of major decisions in the United States.

Most of these 90% of Americans in this underclass are indeed hard-working, pay their bills, grumble about but pay their taxes, lead honest and caring lives, and value the future of their children above all. I would also include in this group those aspiring residents of America who have been branded as "illegal aliens," yet who still contribute energy and vitality to our economy and society and who may even pay social security taxes for benefits which they will never receive.

It was no coincidence that I mentioned Iceland at the end of my piece--the citizens of that country have been well-satisfied and well off for many a year, dozing in their shared prosperity, but after the bottom fell out of the tub, they took to the streets day after day with pots and pans for almost 100% peaceful demonstrations that literally drove their government out of office, installed a caretaker left-leaning government, and forced new elections.

Max is right about how most Americans are unaware of what has taken place, and for many years now I have been saying to people that Mark Twain had the best analysis of their silence and ignorance. I can't remember his exact words, but he thought that Americans never wanted to resist the power of the rich because they so firmly believed that anyone could become rich through hard work. Even the poorest of the poor could never consider themselves as poor, only "temporarily embarrassed." But I think now, as with the Icelanders, the delusion is dissipating. There will always be those extraordinary few who become exceedingly rich, but for the most of us, a comfortable and secure and happy life will be the best aspiration we can resign ourselves to. This is such an American theme. It's F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." The very rich, not the rich.

However, now, it seems, most members of that 90% can see what has taken place over the past thirty years. They see the history of expropriation by the Very Rich and the massive transfer of wealth--that is still continuing in the TARP programs, I might add--in a number of things. They all have their own examples. These are mine:

First, notice the failure of ANY politician to refer to anything but "the middle class" as being hurt by the economic adversity; almost every politician is unable to talk about the "indigent,"" the working poor," the "working class."

Second, notice the sudden and recent silence about "class warfare." That has always traditionally been used to silence any claims for social justice or economic equality. The reason, I think, is that the plutocracy now understands that the stealthy class warfare going on for three decades under another name, has been won. However, one thing has changed. The underclass is finally beginning to see and understand that they are the Gazans in this class warfare, victims of high-tech swindling (repeal of Glass-Steagall, revision of the bankruptcy laws, high commissions and bonuses for shilling the derivatives) and collateral damage (job shopping in foreign countries, tax breaks and off shoring profits for corporations, the debt economy, the decline of manufacturing and its creation of real wealth, the necessity for two income families to work in order to make the ends meet, etc. )

The list goes on, and my anger rises the more I add to it. Some of them have even been burned by the economic versions of white phosphorus, the new DIME (dense inert metal explosive) weapons, or the economic cluster bombs that are still in wait out there disguised as Pepsi cans or Kentucky Fried chicken wings, or the water tables below Hanford, Washington, or diesel pollution near the Port of Long Beach. You know, the "externalities" that the good people of Eastern Connecticut don't have to put up with as they pack their bags for the corporate jet trip to Telluride.

You remember how the Republicans always framed their exploitative legislation in benign terms--Clear Skies Initiative, No Child Left Behind, Healthy Forests Initiative? In the same way they always framed any moves for social and economic justice as "class warfare."

Third, notice the continuing emphasis by the Republicans (and the acquiescence of most Democrats) on tax breaks. Do you really think that a tax break of $400 is going to stimulate the economy? Notice as well the Republicans' continuing insistence on eliminating the inheritance tax, which will benefit only the top 1/30th of the top 1%. That is to say, the Very Very Rich, the moneyed class that has been driving this transfer of wealth. In their insistence on tax cuts Republicans may think they have solid economic principles at work, but it really is the attempt even in this crisis of capitalism feeding on itself, to squeeze every last drop from the great udder of the financial debt and derivative structure.

They have driven this expropriation by lobbying, influence peddling, political contributions, class collusion, "knowing who to talk to" when they were doing something shady or "aggressive," and by the continuing and dominating use of the legal profession and the big accounting firms far more effectively than any "trial lawyers" or "regulators" did in return.

But to get back to President Obama. If I might, I'd like to make an analogy here, and one that the President is very fond of using these days, when he implicitly or explicitly compares himself to Abraham Lincoln.

President Obama's strong belief in the capitalist tenets and his ability not to rethink them and let go of them, is quite similar to the belief that Lincoln held for most of his life, that Negroes were in fact inferior to whites, so much so, that for the years leading up to emancipation, he still held to the idea of massive transfers of slaves to Liberia or South America or the Caribbean. It was a vision one can only call benign ethnic cleansing. Yet this was in parallel to his insistence that "all men are created equal" and that liberty should be extended to all. Lincoln eventually gave up that idea of transfer, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and enabled black men to fight in organized units for the Union, even though he feared that there would be a massive desertion of racist troops from the Union forces.

So I think that the President has a similar dilemma of belief--he understands the inequities in this economic system, what I have called "Americanism" in my post, but he still can't give it up. (The belief in American exceptionalism that drives his foreign policy is related to this as well, so well discussed by Andrew Bacevich in his last book, The Limits of Power: the End of American Exceptionalism.) President Obama may be forced to give it up, eventually, and the sooner he does, the better for all of us--the overwhelming majority of Americans--with the understanding, of course, that it will also be to the detriment of the moneyed class that is still in charge, conceptually, politically and economically.

I just think that by drumming this dilemma home to him, by beating our pots and pans, we may just make him understand that we really have entered a crisis, as Tom Paine would call it, a "time that tries mens' [and women's] souls."

[originally posted at Best of the Blogs]

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