Talk given by Ron Elbert at the Community Church of Boston, November 13, 2016
You might have seen clips of House Speaker Paul Ryan warning a crowd in Wisconsin (Joe McCarthy’s home state!) that if Republicans were to lose control of the Senate, guess who would become chairman of the Senate Budget Committee? A guy named Bernie Sanders! You’ve heard of him?
While Ryan’s little scare tactic was received with hilarity by some commentators, it does underscore an important fact about the ongoing political struggles: the capitalist class in the United States has become so disproportionately wealthy and powerful that it now feels strong enough to propose dumping the whole New Deal legacy — and with it, most of the Kennedy-Johnson reforms later added on. To persuade the fickle working class to return government to its rightful owners and thus turn the clock back to the Gilded Age. Citizens United was nothing if not a savvy political investment.
Ryan’s gaffe also betrayed a confusion between “democracy” and “plutocracy,” i.e., democracy (for the rich), since his fears about control of the Congress were articulated around “conservative,” i.e., capitalist, values. That control must not be allowed to slip into the hands of the vast majority, who would run it into the ground with their misguided values of fairness, equity and justice. It is why he and his colleagues do not trust Donald Trump.
Trump has been described as a populist and a nationalist by the Huffington Post. The strange thing is that he is a Republican at all. In any other country he would have appeared heading his own organization. But the fact that he has erupted into Republican presidential politics shows us the same fragmentation that also besets the openly fractured Democratic Party. [See extract for some very recent comments.]
Although political candidates traditionally are not held to their promises in the U.S., Donald Trump’s months of attacks on just about everyone you could shake a stick at spread fear and even panic around the world. While no one really believed he could actually do all those horrible things, the positions he took erased the distinction between fantasy and reality, turning his campaign into a fairy tale from Hell. To his colleagues on the Right, President-Elect Trump is just so many fires to have to keep putting out. (Clinton, on the other hand, was much more a slick operator — your typical Poker player.)
This is, currently, what the fighting’s all about. But underneath it all, what the fighting’s really about is the rights and privileges of Capital, and has nothing to do with whether society will finally liberate itself from Capital altogether. Only a conscious, political majority can achieve that.
Outside election times, when people aren’t forced to take an adversarial position, they have typically come to feel that voting for “none of the above” is now the only meaningful option. Elections generally mean voting for the “lesser evil” at the time — arguably, an exercise in futility.
Meanwhile, the ongoing fragmentation of opinion here and abroad belies the beguiling “one world” imagery used to sell us the wonders of globalization. Which demonstrates, I think, that globalization is only real from a top-down perspective.
Our Hero Joe
If we line up the chilling last paragraph from Joe McCarthy’s 1950 speech to the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club in Wheeling, WV with Donald Trump’s endless litany of attacks, it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to see that Republicans are old hands at fear-mongering:
…Very recently the Secretary of State … this pompous diplomat in striped pants, with a phony British accent, proclaimed to the American people that Christ on the Mount endorsed communism, high treason, and betrayal of a sacred trust … He has lighted the spark which is resulting in a moral uprising and will end only when the whole sorry mess of twisted, warped thinkers are swept from the national scene so that we may have a new birth of national honesty and decency in government. (Retrieved 11/7/16 from http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/mccarthy.html)
Is this beginning to sound familiar? Needless to say, this did not go over too big with a working class that figured (however complacently) it had found a friend in the New Deal.
It is wise to remember, in any case, that the guiding principle of all political struggles under capitalism is not to be found in the philosophies of the different parties but centers around what affects the worldview and material interests of the rich and powerful. Even when progressive forces triumph for a while, the ground rules of class war hang in the background over all parties like a Sword of Damocles.
The 1960 Presidential election marked the planning stages for the launch of what we might call the “New Morality” model by Republicans eager to find a way to turn the flank of the New Deal. It notoriously featured a very untraditional merger with the up-and-coming religious right. Henceforward, candidates would present themselves as virtuous, upstanding (even God-fearing) individuals. No more voting on the economic record of candidates! This “rollback” formula ultimately had a self-multiplying effect similar to compound interest. It worked.
The attitude of the capitalist class morphed, in short, from a depressive outsider syndrome into a manic confidence in its absolute power to dominate the political imagination of the working class. A very crucial phase of this transmogrification was the evolution, following Marshall McLuhan, of “The Media” from“The Press.” Capitalism’s propaganda system was retooled as the capitalist class emerged from its closet. The New Republicans played this newly discovered asset for all it was worth, and in the process their hubris began to soar. I’d like to read you the following quote from The Daily Kos Recommended:
“The atrocities of 9/11, to be sure, had secured Bush an enormous amount of political capital, and leeway to maneuver, to do things that he wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do. But what it meant, too, was that the Bush administration was credited with an intelligence, and a good faith commitment to the public’s best interests, that wasn’t there in reality. Ron Suskind, in an astonishingly postmodern moment, was told by an unnamed “senior administration official” (probably Karl Rove) that we in the “reality-based community” could look forward to the administration creating a new reality on our behalf:
[Suskind wrote:] The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
“This was an extraordinary moment of hubris in the recent history of the Presidency. Here was a representative of the most powerful office in the world boldly and arrogantly telling a member of the fourth estate that the President was no longer accountable to them, but that they were simply to be passive recipients of whatever new realities were offered by “history’s actors,” by the imperial agents of the executive branch.”
What appears at first glance to be a comic-opera “hubris,” if you deconstruct it from the standpoint of the interests of Capital, is (presumably) really Karl Rove articulating those interests.
But we should understand one thing about this word “empire.” Global Capitalism is the Empire. Every employment-driven economy is implicated in the web of global capitalism, for better or worse. Individual capitalists (including their political representatives) only personify their capital. The body of all capitalists is thus Capital. We already have a world emperor: Capital. Whatever glory the fatuous U.S. élite may cover itself in, its “executive committee” does not exercise the control it imagines it does. This control will probably begin slipping out of its fingers in the next decade. Globalizing capital can have only one center — at a time. It has had to re-invent its barbarians each time: first the Axis Powers, then the Soviet Union and now the indefinably elegant “war on Terror.”
Locking Out the Working Class
Meanwhile, on the strength of Karl Rove’s little fable, those who lead have managed to liberate themselves from the working class as a whole; they no longer need to consult with the employee class about anything. Thus, it was not by accident that Rove and others set out c. 1960 to redesign electoral politics in the United States, transforming it into a contest in capturing the moral high ground. Elections became spectacles in which the working class could applaud or boo the performers (“history’s actors”), without ever regaining control of the political process, even temporarily.
The Republican Right, self-anointed spokesman for the master class, seeking only to roll back the New Deal, has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams in shutting the working class out of real political power. It no longer fears that the working class might someday, somehow combine against it in a revolutionary movement that threatened to oust it from power, as in 1848, 1917 or 1936 in Spain. The issues that now dominate political discourse in the U.S. are totally unreal because they reflect solely the interests of Capital. The invention of National Security and the Military-Industrial Complex was a master-stroke making it at once illogical, illegal and treasonable to advocate reforming capitalism for the benefit of the working class. Eisenhower said more than he knew.
Social Democrats the world over found themselves straight-jacketed into playing Capital’s sidekick. Not only has the New Deal come crashing down, but the Left has been definitively co-opted as the shadow of Capital. There can now be no salvation outside Profit.
A Trumped up Election?
While Hilary Clinton’s astonishing defeat can legitimately be blamed on FBI Director James Comey’s inexplicable and irresponsible decision — only 11 days before the election — to abruptly re-open the FBI’s Clinton email investigation, followed days later by an almost nonchalant dismissal of the case, we still have to ask, how decisive was Clinton’s weakness, or the discontent Trump was tapping into? Trump the maverick and quasi-Republican saw an opportunity to play populist. Although this gave him an undeniably strong suit, it was not politically comprehensive enough to tip the balance in his favor. But a lot of Obama supporters switched over to Trump, who surprisingly polled better with blacks and latinos than Mitt Romney had before him. [See the Huffington Post extract.] And since when does a “populist” court the neo-nazi right? Where are people’s heads?
Even allowing for people’s dismissing Trump’s tirades as circus, for enough people the accumulated results of fear-mongering overpowered a broader sense of the issues. Point for point, Clinton’s expertise made Trump look like a rube, and she won the popular vote. Trump’s support was thus very sectional; voters with a broader perspective outnumbered the panicky white working class — but the latter made up a very large plurality.
In modern politics this group of people has become functionally a mob, easily manipulated using mob psychology. A slogan like “Make America Great Again” may be the first resort of a scoundrel (remember McCarthy!), but it channels the fear-deposits made by previous scoundrels. Church and King mobs were used to similar effect by 18th-Century British governments; as were pogroms in Russia.
Looking ahead, it is easy to guess that the new Trump Administration will hit white water as soon as the Koch Brother Republicans have cleaned off their faces from the New Deal and Obama feeding frenzies. Quietly retiring some of his campaign threats will not begin to pacify the antagonists he has thrown up — especially abroad. And when the dirty money flooding Washington comes home to roost, the predictably dirty scandals it will generate will not go away, as the Specter of Corruption returns to haunt America and make the natives restless.
Civil War in Heaven
The civil war that opened up between Trump the candidate and the proper ideologues toeing the Republican line can only grow and fester, leading to tactical competition between the two factions. At some point the uneasy truce cobbled together is bound to break down. If this happens in tandem with a looming financial crisis — again engineered by the banks — Karl Rove’s visions of a Republican hegemony will shatter as the factions fight each other to a standstill.
Trump’s political inexperience and maverick approach already stick in the craw of the Congressionals (themselves paid for, in many cases, by the Koch Brothers’ money). Since going by the ground rules of class struggle, all positions taken must ultimately conform to the requirements of Capital, Trump’s will necessarily occupy the outside lines — a net tactical disadvantage. When populists barge into the class struggle, they invariably find themselves drawn off to either the Left or the Right — usually the Right. But they never really manage to get beyond messing up the rules.
In the Roman Republic, such contempt as Trump has shown for the ordinary decencies of combat were symptomatic of the rise of a money aristocracy, as the Republic became bloated with the spoils of conquest. Trump’s campaign style suggests we may be in for a rerun. Since Citizens United unleashed a flood of money into the political process, this “rerun” ought logically to take the form of a rapid corruption of all three branches of government.
The split between the Trump and Congressional factions bids fair, moreover, to widen into an abyss, considering that the Department of Defense has now abandoned the hard-line climate-change deniers within the current Republican majority to their fate, explicitly linking National Security to climate change. This amounts to dropping poison in their ears, since Republican hacks (Trump among them) have gone out of their way to deny climate change even exists. All of which will land both factions in a very complex situation, as they strive to outmaneuver each other in repositioning national security over climate change. As the factions square off, the majority denied its hearing during the elections might very likely start to get antsy. Meanwhile, the two factions, drifting from honeymoon to divorce court, will get along like a dog and a cat in the same sack.
The banks are back to overextending themselves, and Trump plans to loosen up their regulatory environment, while favoring legislation purportedly designed to prevent future bailouts. Assuming this all takes effect, then we are sure to witness the same compulsive gambling frenzy followed by another collapse. But with an anti-bailout law on the books, attempting a rerun of 2008 will be out of the question (legally). This would likely play itself out in the form of interminable squabbles over how to keep from ending up with the hot potato. The dysfunctionality of a political system trapped in the web of its own deceptions would probably generate considerable infighting, and certainly more public unrest. With the government unable to weasel out of the putative crisis, the normal atmosphere in Washington would come to resemble an Italian political crisis.
That is probably how things will settle out: to the Right, all the old business players maneuvering for position in the Big Money Game, as usual; to the Left, an increasingly hostile mass of opposition that has been carefully stripped over the years of its organized representatives. This opposition now comes together under various headings, most prominently the Occupy movement.
But the perceived threat of climate change will trump all policies and conflicts, and control of the economy will move into second place as the urgency of responding to the problems of climate change increases exponentially. The world’s governments will all be in a race against time by then.
Government by the Left
At a further remove, these struggles will ultimately usher in a period of “government by the Left,” billed as a “raised” consciousness on the part of the “masses,” the people, the “ninety-nine percent.” In reality, it will only show us Capital handing the bag over to the working class, washing its hands of insoluble crises rising up on all sides — crises identified in the public mind as brought on by Capital itself. The Left will dutifully ponder its options as it holds the bag and the Earth’s atmosphere goes on heating up, but it will be unable to resolve either the problems that Capital wants solved or the problems that society considers need addressing.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi!
And what about the Republicans, up there above all this in their ivory tower? They may be feeling their oats right now, but they are poised to deliver some shocks to the economy whose backlash they are not prepared to deal with. For the sake of their billionaire sugar daddies, they will forcibly detach seniors from Medicare, Social Security and many other undeserved “entitlements.” This efficiency will plunge millions of people into poverty overnight, with no safety net. Shock therapy on this scale promises a huge payoff in political instability.
Awkwardly enough, by 2024, just eight short years from now, we will already be halfway to the tipping point of runaway climate change, with its dire threat not just to business as usual but to the viability of civilization; climate change will have become the last word in hot topics, and candidates promoting the interests of Capital simply won’t be able to muster a respectable showing at the polls anymore. The Republican Party probably won’t long survive its moment of present glory. History is moving on, and a future dominated by climate change will not be kind to Capital.
Like the pyramids of Egypt, capitalism only looks eternal to its creators. In the end, for all its Imperial swagger, Capital narrowly depends on periodic approval from the wage-slaves. The Emperors of Rome could not rule without the consent of the Roman Senate, and Capital cannot rule without the acquiescence of the working class. The capitalist class has managed to push things past the danger point, now that it can count on holding the working class at bay indefinitely, under tight ideological controls.
But, you ask, could a return to the good old days of working-class activism, of brandishing the (largely empty) threat of revolution, not make a real difference? No, because all that whole “specter of communism” is paradoxically no more than a faith in the reformability of capitalism. Merely throwing the old bums out only invites new bums in to profit from the working class’s endless parade of discontents, and the circle never gets broken.
Lurking beneath all the sound and the fury is a working class that knows in its heart everything we have been taught is a lie. Bernie Sanders and the DNC walkout afforded separate glimpses of a restive majority waiting for an opportunity to pull off something really big, something that will pull what passes for history off its tracks. It is not a thirst for fairness or justice — neither of which has ever jolted ruling classes out of their control-freak mentality anyway. It is a sense of power that is being thrust upon us ineluctably by the non compos mentis capitalist rulers themselves.
It is an attitude whose time has come, one that needs only to be recognized. I hope we don’t have to wait for all the glaciers to melt first. The ride is going to get really rough after that. But everyone knows deep down that if homo sapiens is to avoid the horror of watching civilization crumble in its hands, we must act while we still can. We are truly at the crossroads of our evolution.
But eliminating Capital cannot be done in a vacuum: it implies a revolution in the very basis of society. That will be the moment when people find themselves forced to entertain the question, for the first time in modern history, in the history of the world, whether they really want to continue playing Capital’s game. It will be the moment when we are forced to realize that we must forever part ways with the division of society into economic classes and finally take out the sacred cow of employment itself: for once, a real revolution.
— Ron Elbert
Appendix From The Huffington Post (11/11/2016):
The Democratic Party Has Exploded
The years in the wilderness will be brutal.
The Democratic Party exploded Tuesday night.
There will be months of finger-pointing and internal reprisals over exactly what Democrats should have done differently. But the shocking thoroughness of the defeat is plain. Donald Trump — a man who opened his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” — bested Mitt Romney’s share of the Latino vote by 8 percentage points. He performed better among black voters than his 2012 predecessor, and he swept four Rust Belt states that President Barack Obama carried twice — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin — under a harsher economy than we face today. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, which should matter, but does not.
How did this happen, and what now?
The exit polls provide some clarity: A significant chunk of Obama voters flipped to Trump. Trump won 10 percent of voters who approve of Obama’s presidency and 23 percent of voters who think the next president should “be more liberal,” according to CNN data. Trump significantly outperformed Romney among union households. He did 14 points better than Romney among whites without a college degree, according to The New York Times, and 16 points better among households with less than $30,000 in income. The Trump Democrat turns out not to be a myth, but a meaningful constituency that just cost Clinton the presidency.
Obama also glued together two otherwise hostile ideological factions within the Democratic Party. Time magazine hailed him as the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while he declared himself a member of the corporate-friendly, free-trading New Democrat coalition. Millions of Americans who love Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also love Obama. So do well-heeled technocrats who admire President Bill Clinton and economist Larry Summers.
This was reflected in Obama’s policy achievements. He expanded access to health insurance for millions of people and signed trade deals that undermined workers and enriched CEOs.
That same duality permeates Congress, where New Democrats have been battling New Dealers for 45 years. It is simply not clear that another politician is capable of keeping that team united.
And further electoral losses are on the horizon. The 2018 map is terrible for Democrats — five of their senators are up for re-election in Republican-dominated states, and four more in swing states. The losing side in the party leadership battle will be pissed off for a long time.
The American left, meanwhile, is a difficult beast to corral. The Sanders coalition wasn’t monolithic — it included plenty of New Dealer populists, but it also brought in capital-S hammer-and-sickle Socialists who don’t really like the Democratic Party. Even under a progressive takeover, we can expect the bitter intellectual feuds between Bernie Bros and Hillary Bots to shift down the ideological spectrum.
Many are interpreting Trump’s election as a white supremacist backlash against the first black president and misogynist fear of a first woman president. After Trump’s vile campaign, it is impossible to conclude these were not significant factors.
But ugly attitudes don’t simply fall out of the sky, eternal and inflexible. A new paper from economists Rob Johnson and Arjun Jayadev looks at economic downturns from 1979 to 2014, and finds a tight correlation between unemployment and racism — the higher the unemployment rate, the more ubiquitous the discrimination. A 2014 study from New York University psychologists found that racial animosity hardens under economic scarcity. Last year, three German economists found that “far-right” political parties almost always make significant gains after a financial crisis.
This doesn’t mean that economic insecurity is the sole cause of racism, but it does suggest that it can be a cause. They call it the Rust Belt for a reason. Ø