The Reichstag Fire Next Time

The coming crackdown

When each day brings more news than we are used to seeing in a week, and the kind of news that only the most catastrophic imagination can accommodate, we find ourselves talking about the Reichstag fire. Time feels both accelerated and slowed down, and so we imagine that we have been talking about the fire for years. It is the new president’s new clothes: invisible, yet always present in our perception of him.

The Reichstag fire, it goes almost without saying, will be a terrorist attack, and it will mark our sudden, obvious, and irreversible descent into autocracy. Here is what it looks like: On a sunny morning you turn on the television as you make coffee, or the speaker in your shower streams the news, or the radio comes on when you turn the ignition key in your car. The voices of the newscasters are familiar, but their pitch is altered, and they speak with a peculiar haste. Something horrible has happened—it is not yet clear what—and thousands are dead, and more are expected to die. You hear the word “terror.” You feel it.

Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew. Source photographs: Adolf Hitler © Hulton Archive/Getty Images; crowd saluting Hitler © Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images

You reach for your cell phone, but the circuits are busy, and will be for hours—it will take you the rest of the day to check in with your loved ones. They are safe, but changed. And so are you. So are all of us. Tragedy has cast its shadow over every space where you encounter strangers: the subway, your child’s school, your lunch spot. People are quieter, less frivolous, yet they are not subdued. They share a sense of purpose that is greater than their fear. They are experiencing something they’d only read about: War has come to their land. Everyone is a patriot now.

You used to scoff at that word, or argue that dissent was the highest form of patriotism. But now you find that the word expresses what you are. Now is not the moment for dissent. A couple of public intellectuals insist that it is, and you feel embarrassed for them. They quickly fade from the scene, and this serves to underscore an unprecedented sort of unity.

Nowhere is this unity more evident than in Washington. Bills are passed unanimously. These laws give new powers to the president and his security apparatus. The president, unpopular and widely considered incompetent before the attack, now steps up to direct the war effort. His demeanor—which some used to deride as primitive—is well suited for this new black-and-white era. His administration institutes sweeping surveillance to ferret out enemies at home, and wages one war and then another abroad.

American public life is profoundly transformed. The press becomes uncritical of the government. There is no outright censorship; correspondents are part of the effort now, as they were during the Second World War. American casualties pile up, the foreign carnage is enormous and unmeasured, but there is scant domestic resistance. Only at the margins of politics and the media do some people question the usefulness and legality of the war effort.

The government pushes the limits further, cutting off access to the judiciary for those deemed the enemy. The president is no longer unpopular, and he can impose his will on Washington and the country. The country is in a forever war, a state of exception that has taken away many American freedoms, some of which were ceded voluntarily.

That is what we talk about when we talk about the Reichstag fire, and it has already happened. Like sad versions of the characters in The Wizard of Oz, who set off in search of traits they already possess, we are living in fear of an event that will catapult us into a terrifying future, when the event has already occurred—and has given us our terrifying present.

The actual fire in the Reichstag—the German parliament building—burned on the evening of February 27, 1933. Adolf Hitler had been appointed chancellor four weeks earlier, and already he had begun placing restrictions on the press and expanding the powers of the police. Yet it is the fire, rather than Hitler’s toxic first steps, that is remembered as the event after which things were never the same, in Germany or in the world.

Hitler capitalized on the fire by taking an uncompromising militant stand: “There will be no mercy now. Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.” This, in turn, probably boosted his popularity, paving the way for a victory for the Nazi Party in parliamentary elections a week later.

Hitler immediately began cracking down on the political opposition. The day after the fire, the government issued a decree allowing the police to detain people without charges, on the grounds of prevention. Activists were rounded up by his paramilitary forces, the SA and the SS, and placed in camps. Less than a month later, the parliament passed an “enabling act,” creating rule by decree and establishing a state of emergency that lasted as long as the Nazis were in power.

Anschluss—the annexation of Austria—was still five years away, and the start of the Second World War six and a half, but the Reichstag fire was used to create a state of exception, as Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, called it. In Schmitt’s terms, a state of exception arises when an emergency, a singular event, shakes up the accepted order of things. This is when the sovereign steps forward and institutes new, extralegal rules. The emergency enables a quantum leap: The sovereign has to have enough power to declare a state of exception, and then by that declaration he acquires far great­er, unchecked power. That is what makes the change irreversible, and the state of exception permanent.

Every galvanizing event of the past eighty years has been compared to the Reichstag fire. On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, was murdered by a lone gunman. The killer, Leonid Nikolaev, was arrested and executed, but the assassination is remembered as the pretext for creating a state of exception in Russia. Show trials and mass arrests followed, swelling the gulag with people accused of being traitors, spies, and terrorist plotters. To handle the volume, the Kremlin created troikas—three-person panels that doled out a sentence without reviewing the case, much less hearing from the defense.

More recently, Vladimir Putin has relied on a succession of catastrophic events to create irreversible exceptions. In 1999, a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and cities in southern Russia killed hundreds. This allowed Putin to proclaim that he could summarily execute those deemed “terrorists” and became a pretext for a new war in Chechnya. In 2002, the three-day siege of a Moscow theater served as a demonstration of the principle of summary execution: Russian law enforcement pumped the theater full of sleeping gas, entered the building, and shot the hostage-takers as they lay unconscious. The Kremlin also used the theater siege as a pretext to ban the already cowed media from covering anti-terrorist operations. Two years later, more than three hundred people, most of them children, died following an attack at a school in Beslan, in southern Russia. Putin used this catastrophic event to cancel the elections of local governors, effectively abolishing the country’s federal structure.

The thinking that transforms tragedy into crackdown is not foreign to the United States. During the crisis that followed the Alien and Sedition Acts at the turn of the nineteenth century, the ruling Federalists and the opposition Republicans accused each other of treason and a fatal lack of vigilance, of being Jacobin puppets. The courts, stacked with Federalist appointees, wasted no time shutting down opposition newspapers.

Half a century later, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, the right not to be imprisoned without civilian judicial review. He did this to be able to indefinitely hold rebels whom he judged a danger to the Union—but whom, he said, “the courts, acting on ordinary rules, would discharge.” It wasn’t until 1866 that the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.

By the next major war, the First World War, speech perceived as critical of or detrimental to the American war effort was punished with prison sentences as long as ten years. Historian Geoffrey Stone has called Woodrow Wilson’s Sedition Act of 1918 “the most repressive legislation in American history.” Thousands of people were arrested—many without a warrant—and 249 anarchist and communist activists were deported to Soviet Russia. It wasn’t until later that Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis started on a dissenting streak that ultimately restored and clarified free-speech protections.

The Second World War brought another presidential assault on the Constitution: the internment of more than a hundred thousand Americans of Japanese descent. Then came the ­McCarthy era, when the government took up spying on the enemy within and accusations of treason, whether or not they were supported by evidence, ruined life after life. The next generation of Americans lived through the secrecy, deceit, and paranoia of the Vietnam War years, which culminated in a president who had his opponents prosecuted and wiretapped. For Americans in the twentieth century a state of exception came close to being the rule.

Not all the periods of exception are remembered as repressive: In State of Exception, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes that Franklin Roosevelt invoked emergency powers for the passage of the New Deal in 1933, arguing that economic catastrophe warranted “broad Executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Writing in 2005, Agamben drew a narrative line from the state of exception in Europe following the First World War to that in America following 9/11.

As long as war is raging, political consensus supports the crackdowns. Legal scholar Stephen Holmes calls this wisdom “the intuitive claim that grave emergencies require discretionary authority to act outside and against inherited rules and standard operating procedures.” There is no proof that such a response is effective—and there is even copious evidence that it leads to abuse of power and damage to society—but the temptation to both seize and cede power in the face of fear proves irresistible time after time.

Source photographs: Donald Trump © JB Lacroix/WireImage; Vladimir Putin © Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images; Barack Obama © Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images; George W. Bush © Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images; protest © Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images; drone © Erik Simonsen/Getty Images

The war that began in 2001 is unlike other wars: The enemy is not a nation or an army but a tactic, one that has existed for millennia. This war cannot be won, because a tactic cannot be eradicated. A war that cannot be won cannot end, and so it has not. Nor have the liberties surrendered by Americans in response to 9/11 been restored. Under President Obama, the war on terror morphed into the more grammatically sensible war on terrorism. The Patriot Act became the Freedom Act. The use of torture appears to have been largely discontinued, but the camp at Guantánamo Bay continues its shameful existence—with a reduced number of inmates, though numbers are never a good measure of liberty. Millions of Americans who voted in the last election have lived with the war on terror for as long as they can remember.

In his farewell address in Chicago, Obama could claim only that he had “worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans,” he said, interrupted by cheers before continuing, “who are just as patriotic as we are.” Over the course of more than fifteen years, the essential premise—that the United States is at war, and that the Other in this war is Muslims—has remained unchanged. Trump claims that Muslim Americans celebrated 9/11, while Obama says that they are just as patriotic as we are; that they are not us is one of the few things the two men agree on.

The current state of exception rests in part on the national state of emergency, which George W. Bush declared three days after the September 11 attacks, which he renewed every year of his presidency, and which Obama also renewed every September of his. The president’s ability to impose and renew a state of emergency is technically limited by the 1976 National Emergencies Act, which requires Congress to vote on the state of emergency within six months of the day it is imposed. But such a vote has never occurred—even though the act has been invoked at least fifty-three times. In practice, the president wields unilateral power over emergencies.

The National Emergencies Act can be invoked for disasters beyond an actual war—Obama declared a national emergency in anticipation of the swine flu epidemic in 2009—but it invariably represents both an outsized reaction to a perceived threat and a journey outside what we maintain is normal national and social conduct. At any given time in the past decade, roughly thirty simulta­neous states of emergency have been in effect. Dozens of executive orders, and numerous other directives and regulations, have stemmed from these states of emergency—all of them creating powers that would be impossible in the increasingly illusory normal state of things. A state of emergency allows the president to unilaterally seize control of the media, food supplies, and commercial vessels, for instance. The fact that Bush and Obama did not utilize some of the more extreme possibilities of the state of emergency testifies only to their restraint, not to the legal limitations. At the same time, we know less and less about the powers the government has exercised; since 2001, an ever-increasing number of these emergency powers have been classified.

The state of exception also rests on the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed by Congress three days after the attacks in 2001. It gives the president sweeping power to

use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.

The law, passed with a single dissenting vote, remains in force as the nation enters its fourth post-9/11 presidential term.

Today, when it is said that a terrorist attack is sure to happen, it is assumed that the attack will be carried out in the name of the Islamic State. The premise of inevitability is notable—one would think that such acts of terror occurred in the United States on a regular basis. Since September 11, 2001, however, there have been eleven attacks ostensibly driven by jihadist ideology; they have claimed a total of ninety-five lives. “The death toll has been quite similar to other forms of political—and even non-political—violence Americans face today,” a recent report from the New America foundation summarized. The report referred only to domestic terrorism and mass shooting incidents, but many more Americans have died at the hands of the state: In the first four months of this year, the use of deadly force by police claimed three times as many lives. These killings, extrajudicial by definition, are a symptom of the state of exception, which has turned the police into a military force. As a nation we insist on being united in fear of the one-in-millions chance of a particular kind of violence. That we seem so certain of the outlines of the Reichstag fire to come reveals the fact that it has already occurred.

Among the victims of the sixteen-year-old state of exception are hundreds of individuals identified, prosecuted, and sentenced under emergency rules. Since the war on terror began, the United States has prosecuted an average of forty terrorism cases per year, about half of them on the basis of informant operations. Convictions that result from such cases—and convictions result almost without fail, usually as the result of a plea bargain—fetch higher sentences because of something known as the terrorism adjustment in federal sentencing guidelines. The adjustment went into effect following the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 but was used most widely after 9/11. This was a law passed by Congress, yet it created an exceptional category of crime that could not be addressed by normal law. One example is the prosecution of two Iraqi refugees who were tried in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for allegedly intending to help insurgent fighters battling U.S. forces back home. The men were convicted of terrorism, even though the accusation against them—that they aided fighters confronting an army—doesn’t fit standard definitions of terrorism. They were sentenced to life in prison, in the case of a man arrested at the age of twenty-three, and forty years behind bars, for the one who cooperated with the prosecution. This was the case that Trump aide Kellyanne Conway presumably had in mind when she conjured the memory of the Bowling Green Massacre—something that never happened but, according to the logic the country has applied over the past decade and a half, could have happened.

A key characteristic of the most frightening regimes of the past hundred years is mobilization. This is what distinguishes the merely authoritarian regimes from the totalitarian ones. Authoritarians prefer their subjects passive, tending to their private lives while the authoritarian and his cronies amass wealth and power. The totalitarian wants people out in the square; he craves their adulation and devotion, their willingness to fight and die for him. Mobilization was just as important an element of Hitler’s 1933 consolidation of power as his crackdown. Victory rallies, national holidays, and parades demonstrated, even forced, the unity of a nation. In Germans into Nazis, historian Peter Fritzsche makes no mention of the Reichstag fire but devotes a chapter to the May Day parade of 1933, a daylong, citywide spectacle “carefully choreographed to .?.?. demonstrate the national sense of purpose that was now said to animate the German people.”

To totalitarianism watchers, Trump’s campaign rallies, which segued into his victory rallies, including his “America First” inauguration, have looked familiar and perhaps more worrisome than an imaginary future fire. To historians of the twenty-first century, however, they will likely look like logical steps from the years of war rhetoric that preceded them, not quantum leaps. A nation can be mobilized only if it knows its enemy and believes in its own peril.

It is not clear how many Germans attended that May Day parade because the spirit moved them and how many were compelled by fear or force. Four and a half decades later, in “The Power of the Powerless,” the Czech dissident Václav Havel described an individual who “lives within a lie,” the lie of the official ideology, without consciously accepting or rejecting it. Totalitarianism robs a person of the very ability to form an opinion.

Fear has a way of catapulting citizens into the inside of a lie. Following the apartment-building bombings of 1999, Russians huddled together, forming neighborhood patrols, eyeing strangers and neighbors alike with suspicion, and then threw their support behind the recently appointed prime minister, Vladimir Putin. In one of his first public statements, the unknown, gray little politician promised to hunt down terrorists and “rub them out in the outhouse,” rhetorically trampling the foundations of the justice system.

Americans, too, have finely honed instincts for banding together in the face of an attack. Within hours of the September 11 attacks, 150 members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America.” Some of them held hands. The strongest country on the planet was making a spectacle of fear and resolve. The following day, a train traveling between Boston and New York was stopped because passengers had been alarmed by the presence of a Sikh man; he was removed. Two days later, enabling legislation—bills on war powers and the state of emergency—were passed.

Trump does not have to declare war—this has already been done—or even proffer an assessment of the danger. But he has already shown that he can deftly use the coercive power of the state of being at war—this is, possibly, the only political tool of which the president has instinctive mastery. During his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump orchestrated more than two minutes of applause for the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL. It was 125 seconds of naked cynicism that left no one in the audience any choice but to stand and applaud. The following day Breit­bart falsely claimed that several top Democrats had refused to do so. This was a preview of the coercion by national unity that we talk about when we talk about the Reichs­tag fire, but it was also reminiscent of the early weeks and months following 9/11, when Bill Maher and Susan Sontag were shamed for breaking rhetorical ranks.

In Russia, it took many years for Putin to consolidate power, and it wasn’t until 2012 that his regime assumed its current retro-totalitarian character. Over the years, the use of terrorist attacks to justify successive crackdowns has grown familiar and gradually transformed the country’s thinking. The lack of logical connections between events and their ostensible consequences, along with the general degradation of the judicial system and law enforcement, eroded all trust in the government—to the extent that every time a terrorist attack occurred, many Russians assumed that the government, no matter what it said, was behind it. When a bomb went off in the St. Petersburg Metro in April, killing fourteen people, journalists and Russia watchers instantly assumed that the Kremlin had organized the attack in order to detract attention from or to stifle emergent anti-corruption protests.

Over the years many Russians, including me, have come to believe that the apartment-building bombings in Moscow and elsewhere were organized and carried out by the FSB, the intelligence agency, in order to shore up Putin’s power grab. There has never been a transparent and satisfying investigation of the blasts, but the available evidence stacks up in favor of this theory.

When we talk about the Reichstag fire, we speak not only about an event that precipitates a state of exception and launches coercive national mobilization but also of a conspiracy. Many Germans were certain that the Reichs­tag fire was set by the Nazis themselves. So much evidence supported this theory that for decades after the Second World War a Nazi conspiracy was the historians’ consensus. During the same period, it was generally accepted that the Kirov murder was a secret-police assassination. But when all the available information on the Kirov murder was excavated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was no proof to back up the conspiracy theory: It is now believed that Kirov was killed by his assistant’s jealous husband. In the 1960s, reporting cast doubt on the theory that the Nazis burned down the Reichstag, but in the 1990s, a new wave of evidence suggested they may have been involved after all. Historians continue to debate the issue. (A young Dutch Communist was apprehended at the scene, tried, and sentenced to death by beheading.) It is certainly too early to exonerate Putin and the FSB for the apartment bombings, but the Russian autocrat may eventually be proved to have simply seized an opportunity, as he has done many times since. For now, though, we do not know enough, and this paucity of information, too, is one of the signs of an autocracy.

Autocracies thrive on and engender fear, ignorance, and—their combined product—conspiracy theory. Writing in his diary in January 1934, the linguist Victor Klemperer assessed a genre of joke. “Conversations in heaven are popular. The best one: Hitler to Moses: But you can tell me in confidence, Herr Moses. Is it not true that you set the bush on fire yourself?” The joke shows Hitler and the satirist sharing a conspiratorial worldview: The person telling the joke believes that the führer set the Reichs­tag fire and also that Hitler sees the world through the lens of his own deception. Everyone is both a conspirator and a conspiracy theorist.

The September 11 attacks, like all unimaginable events, spawned conspiracy theories. Trutherism spread far and wide; its younger cousin, birtherism, grabbed hold of a smaller but more vocal constituency. By the time Trump was elected president, America was living through an epidemic of conspiracy thinking. Some were convinced that Hillary Clinton ran a child-sex ring from a pizza shop in Washington; others that every recently dead Russian man was connected to Trump’s election victory. No one now seems to believe that most things are what they seem: usually, a mess.

When we talk about the Reichs­tag fire, we talk about the consequences of a catastrophic event. But in our case, these consequences—a legal state of exception, a sense of living under siege, popular mobilization, and an epidemic of conspiracy thinking—are already in place. Indeed, they are the preconditions of our current predicament. Trump used the conspiracy thinking and the siege mentality to get himself elected. Once president, he used the state of exception to begin lobbing missiles, dropping bombs—nothing less than the so-called Mother of All Bombs. Mobilization, the popular sense of being together in constant battle, ensured that Trump’s first forays into war looked good on TV. At the same time, Trump overestimated the power given to him by the siege mentality. When he attempted to ban Muslims from entering the United States, for example, he encountered great popular and institutional resistance.

Here lies our best hope for reversing the effects of the next Reichs­tag fire: American civil society is strong—far stronger, paradoxically, than it was before the election. And something remains of what Hannah Arendt observed in a letter from 1946:

People here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent I have never seen in any European country. For example, when all Americans of Japanese descent were locked up willy-nilly in concentration camps at the beginning of the war, a genuine storm of protest that can still be felt today went through the country.

What struck Arendt was the spontaneous and active expression of solidarity on the part of ordinary Americans who “declared that if something like that could happen, they no longer felt safe themselves.”

The comparison to contemporary protests may not be entirely straightforward. Leading arguments rested on the impossibility of religious discrimination; popular protest relied on a general sense of injustice and the rational argument that banning the entry of people from seven majority-Muslim countries would do little to protect Americans from terrorism. But by pointing to the ineffectiveness of the proposed ban, some of these arguments unwittingly reinforced the idea that Americans can make themselves safer by shutting out some part of the world.

Most recent protests share a fundamental flaw: They project the assumption that things were fine until America inexplicably elected Trump. The women’s marches, the immigrants’ marches, the scientists’ marches, the protests in defense of the Affordable Care Act and freedom of speech, and the earliest of the protests, which simply expressed outraged disbelief at the results of the election, all serve the purpose of staking out the current norms and vowing to defend them. It’s hard to argue with the urge; all indications are that the current norms are far preferable to the reality of the near and distant future. Yet most of the protests live within a lie—the fiction that the threats of the Trump presidency are not only grave but also new. His war against the national press is a grotesque blowup of many years’ worth of growing regimentation of access, concentration of power, and government opacity. Trump’s war on immigrants builds on the mass deportations of the Obama years, which were themselves built on the siege mentality of the Bush years. Trump’s casual bomb-throwing is enabled by the forever war begun nearly sixteen years ago.

To confront the threat we face, it is not enough to advance the rational argument that an American has a lesser chance of dying in a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee than of being struck by lightning. Nor is it enough to focus on the grave injustice of tarnishing immigrants as potential criminals and Muslim refugees as potential terrorists. It is most certainly not enough to revel in the beauty, intelligence, and wit of the many people who have come out to protest Trump’s attacks on humanity and its planet. There is, in fact, no room for self-congratulation in the actions we need to take.

To be worthy of the lofty name “resistance,” the opposition to Trump must aim to break the country’s post-9/11 trajectory. It must question the very premise of the war on terror, challenge the very fact of a perpetual state of emergency, and confront not only the Trump presidency but the legacy of the Bush and Obama Administrations. Organizations such as the A.C.L.U. have been doing this for years. The Trump presidency has not only, paradoxically, brought the group millions of dollars, it has also, potentially, rallied millions of people to the cause. Now is the time to stop waiting for the Reichs­tag fire and start battling the consequences of the one we already had—Trump and the legal and public conditions that are enabling his presidency.

 

 

Silicon Valley’s advertisements aren’t just selling products — they’re selling an ideology

The utopian futures we see in tech ads have a trickle-down effect on how we perceive the role of tech in our lives

Silicon Valley’s advertisements aren’t just selling products — they’re selling an ideology
(Credit: Getty/NelleG)

A man and woman are awakened by the cooing alarm emanating from a massive wall-mounted touchscreen. A wall of floor-to-ceiling photochromic windows gradually brightens to reveal the morning sun kissing a lush estate garden. The scene shifts to the woman brushing her teeth while checking work email from a bathroom mirror screen. Moments later, two girls in school uniforms stand in a gleaming white kitchen; one of them is playing with a touchscreen-covered refrigerator door while the father makes an omelet on a sleek high-tech induction stovetop interacting with yet another touchscreen embedded in the countertop.

Amid the tinkling of an electric keyboard, this five-minute promotional video from Gorilla Glass manufacturer Corning walks us through the day of this fictional wealthy family in an idealized version of a Manhattan-like “smart” city impossibly devoid of traffic. Corning isn’t just selling its durable glass, but its vision of future society.

In Corningland, everyone is happy, wealthy and living out fruitful, productive lives, surrounded by products of benevolent technological disruption. This world has no unhappy Uber drivers, Airbnb-fueled gentrification doesn’t exist and iPads in the classrooms actually help to educate children. When tech marketing underscores social or global problems, it’s used only as a setup to underscore how technology can solve them.

“It’s like you have one class [in tech-focused promotional material] and the class that you have is upper middle,” Chris Birks, associate professor of digital media at Benedictine University, told Salon. “You see a utopian vision, not one necessarily of everyone being super rich, but doing better than they were because of the new technology we have, which is not the case.”

As 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson famously said: “Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement.” It’s natural for product promotions to either depict the world in utopian terms or to engage in what’s known as “constructive discontent,” in which a problem is highlighted in order to show that a product or service is its solution.

But unlike, say, environmentally unfriendly laundry detergent or sugary carbonated beverages, the underlying assumptions proposed by ads for Google Glass, Amazon Prime, Microsoft Cloud and other innovative products often  go unquestioned.

“Technology advertising is especially interesting because what it’s doing is saying all technological advances are good and all technology is beneficial to the people who will be lucky enough to adopt it,” John Carroll, assistant professor of Mass Communications as Boston University, who specializes in advertising and media criticism, told Salon. “There’s nothing that says an advertisement needs to point out the downside of a product, but one of the issues here is that the counterbalancing argument that not all innovation is beneficial doesn’t get the kind of exposure that might be helpful to the public.”

Indeed, visit any technology-focused media outlet, or the tech sections of many news organizations, and you’ll see that “gadget porn” videos, hagiographic profiles of startup founders or the regurgitation of lofty growth expectations from Wall Street analysts vastly outnumber critical analyses of technological disruption. The criticisms that do exist tend to focus on ancillary issues, such as Silicon Valley’s dismal lack of workplace diversity, or how innovation is upsetting norms in the labor market, or the class-based digital divide; all are no doubt important topics, but they’re ones that don’t question the overall assumptions that innovation and disruption are at worst harmless if not benevolent.

Carroll says that it’s up to the media, schools and even religious institutions to counterbalance the presumptions made in advertising, whose goal, he points out, is often to portray happiness “through acquisition as opposed to achievement.”

This idea of selling innovation as a pathway to universal prosperity isn’t new. In the 1980s, South Korean technology companies LG and Samsung were churning out idealistic portrayals of technology’s role in creating what Su-Ji Lee, a faculty member at Seoul National University who studies design and culture, described in a paper published in November as “technological utopianism.” The idea that technology will save us all emerged in South Korea during the country’s rapid economic development following decades of poverty.

In these ads, Samsung and LG portrayed consumers as happy or bewildered children, innocent and helpless, as technology lorded benevolently over the innocent and helpless, bringing to them (and to Korea itself) a new era of post-war prosperity.

In these advertisements, Lee writes, “the corporations . . . [play] the leading role of progress towards the future and enlightenment of people.” In these advertising campaigns, she continued, “the hero is the corporation rather than the human.”

Birks, who has studied utopian depictions in web advertising, says that while innovation can be off-putting and certainly not always benevolent, it’s always been the case that innovators views themselves as disruptors.

“For better or worse, they are changing the world,” he said.

Like any sector, the tech industry isn’t going to underscore the negative implications of its innovations in its own promotional materials. Helped by more objective and less fawning tech coverage, people can decide how much technology they want in their lives. Perhaps it would help them if they realized that many of the tech industry’s most celebrated heroes, including the late Steve Jobs, are so wary of emerging technologies that they keep their own children away from their own gadgets..

 

http://www.salon.com/2017/06/24/silicon-valleys-advertisements-arent-just-selling-products-they-are-selling-an-ideology/?source=newsletter

Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience

Lauded for its clear vision of the future, “RoboCop” just gave the plutocratic philanthrocapitalists of today cover

Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience
Peter Weller as RoboCop in “RoboCop”(Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios)

We have become obsessed with prescience. Or rather, a kind of reverse-prescience that sees old books (from Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer”) invested with a new vitality. These works, and their authors, are hailed for their farsightedness and acute judiciousness, for their ability to “speak to our troubled times.” But more often than not, it’s a case of too little, way too late.

Reading the Stalinist parable “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to make sense of Trumpism feels about as useful as scanning the instructions on a bottle of bear spray while your torso’s already half-digested by a savage Kodiak. Still, we laud the old works and the old masters for their seeming ability to forecast the present, even if they do so in hazy, generalizing terms. The esteemed quality of prescience thus reveals itself as conservative, keeping us fixed on the past, lost in our fantasies of foregone foresight. Damn, if only we could have seen it coming back then.

Few pop-cultural objects carry this burden of prescience like “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire/Detroit dystopia/Christian allegory, which turns 30 this summer. Set in a near-future Motor City beset by corporate greed, with slums being rebuilt as privatized skyscraper communities and public services seized by profiteering private contractors, much of “RoboCop’s” critical legacy hinges on its seemingly spooky ability to predict the future: from the militarization of American police forces, to the collapse (and rebirth) of Detroit, to the way in which politics has become increasingly beholden to private money.

Never mind that all these things were already happening when “RoboCop” was released theatrically at the ass-end of the Reagan administration. What matters is how the film is regarded as effectively anticipating what’s happening now. Problem is: claims of the film’s prescience aren’t just overstated. They’re fundamentally incorrect. And if we’re to believe — as many seem to — that “RoboCop’s” near future is meant to be our present, then we must reckon with one of its greatest oversights: its depiction of business-suited capitalists as crass, corporatist, unfeeling heels. What “RoboCop” got wrong was its depiction of the bad guys — of those greedy corporate profiteers looking to razz Detroit’s crumbling ghettos, quarterback private police militias and trap the hearts and minds of good, honest, working men inside hulking robotic exoskeletons.

***

On the commentary track bundled with Criterion’s now out-of-print 1998 home video release of “RoboCop,” producer Jon Davison summed up the movie’s message. He called it “fascism for liberals.” As Davison puts it: “The picture is extremely violent, but it has a nice, tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” Indeed, “RoboCop,” like many of Dutch expat Paul Verhoeven’s other films (“The Fourth Man,” “Starship Troopers,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” even the recent “Elle”) function through this sort of deeply embedded irony; this “we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” The sex, the violence, the way they flirt with ideological reprehensibility — Verhoeven’s films are calibrated to invite reaction, even disgust. And yet that’s never the end in itself.

When a heavy artillery “urban pacification” tank shoots up a boardroom meeting early in “RoboCop,” in one of the film’s most legendarily over-the-top sequences, the joke isn’t the display of gore itself, but rather the reaction. When the scowling CEO of Omni Consumer Products (referred to with mock-affection as “The Old Man,” and played by Dan O’Herlihy) witnesses the wanton display of machine-on-man violence and mutters to sniveling underling Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), “I’m very disappointed in you,” that’s the joke — a critique of the corporate world’s utter disdain for human life, packaged in a parody of Reagan-era paternalist condescension. This, presumably, is what Davison is talking about. “RoboCop” offers visions of violence, of top-down, totalitarian corporate control, and the crumbling of the American Dream itself that proves fundamentally comforting in its cheekiness and ironic distance. Yes, the world it depicts is bad. But we know it’s bad. And that’s good.

Yet this idea — fascism for liberals — runs even deeper into the movie’s DNA. What its capitalist parody doesn’t anticipate is the current entanglements of corporatism and politics. While the ascent of celebrity capitalist Donald Trump may play like something out of a direct-to-video “RoboCop” sequel, the film fails to address the more pressing threat of smiling, do-gooder philanthrocapitalists: guys like Michael Bloomberg or Mark Zuckerberg who increasingly set the agendas of American (and global) politics, while retaining the image of selfless saviors. These are the people who, increasingly, represent the corporatization of everyday life, albeit in a way that “RoboCop”-style corporate villainy can’t account for.

When Donald Trump announced that America would be backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to pick up the tab with his private money. Likewise, before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced he was buying the Whole Foods supermarket chain last week — a move that boosted Bezos’s stock while sapping that of competitors like Wal-Mart and Target — he canvassed Twitter for ideas on charities to which he could donate money. This is the face of modern consumerist capitalism: lead with a benign-seeming charitable gesture, follow through with a massive, bottom line-boosting buyout.

The fundamental weakness of ’’80s-era, “RoboCop”-ian businessman bad guys is their conspicuousness. They are vulgar and cruel, they divulge their scheming master plans in Bond villain-style monologues, and mainline cocaine and throw their henchmen out of moving vehicles. They are obviously (too obviously, maybe) villainous. They are unabashedly wolfish and competitive. This is not meant as a dig at “RoboCop” itself, which is a perfect film. Rather, it’s a critique of the automated reaction to praising the film for its farsightedness in a way that seems blinkered and myopic, even from the perspective of today.

Because today, things are altogether different. The billionaire super-capitalists seeking to monopolize the experience of daily life tend to appear not as smirking super-villains with spindly fingers steepled together as if it say “I’m scheming.” Rather, they’re the “good guys.” They donate money to charity (while exploiting tax loopholes), they care about the environment and schools and LGBTQ rights and the health and wellbeing of the Democratic Party. Some even want to go to Mars. They orbit around politics without seeming overtly political. (The obvious exception in this glad-handing rogues gallery is Bloomberg, though his move from mayor of America’s largest city back to private citizen and super-rich guy tends to be regarded as just that, a return or a retirement from political life.) And this seeming isolation from the sphere of politics is their greatest strength.

***

In 1831, French bureaucrats dispatched Alexis de Tocqueville to America to study the national prison system. He skipped the prisons, surveying instead the whole broad expanse of American society. The resulting study, “Democracy in America,” is an exhaustive account of life and liberty and the then-fledgling republic.

One thing that struck de Tocqueville was the cleaving of church and state. Unlike France, where the Bourbon Restoration had reinstated privileges of nobility granted to the clergy that had been largely stripped during the Revolution, and where the Catholic Church was state religion, America’s deep religiosity existed outside (or alongside) the political realm. “In America,” de Tocqueville observed, “the clergy never hold public office and are not politically active. While the power of religion seems diminished without an alliance with political power, it is actually stronger.” Where “the political sphere is constantly in a state of flux and is always changing according to public opinion,” religion provides a stabler “common morality.”

De Tocqueville’s observations on the American clergy’s power were explicitly translated to the political-social realm by economist Friedrich Hayek and other so-called “Austrian School” economists. As Linsey McGoey writes in her 2015 critique of philanthropy “No Such Thing as a Free Gift,” these economists “grasped the that in order to wield lasting power it was important to make sure their efforts appeared as non-political as possible. Unfailingly, whenever confronted with a choice between overt political engagement and more surreptitious political lobbying, Hayek would recommend the second strategy.” This sense of standing outside the muck and mire of politics itself, of living above the fray, grants billionaire corporatists inordinate power in the public imagination (to wit: during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump successfully spun his lack of experience in politics into a virtue, and similarly framed his inordinate wealth as a mark of his incorruptibility).

Capitalism, or even just gauzier ideas of “business” and “the market,” provide their own contemporary “common morality” (or they appear to, anyway). This is the ultimate liberal fantasy: that all we need to solve massive social problems is more money, that the way to fight against billionaires is with different kind of billionaires. And this is not even to say that Bloomberg, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Bill Gates, Carlos Slim et al. are necessarily bad or evil. But this altruism and aloofness is the essence of their menace. They use wealth, power and influence that results in a net negative of the democratic experiment. While appearing benevolent, they set the agenda, all without the consultation of the broader public (save for the occasional Twitter poll). They consolidate their power and restrict possibilities, delimiting democracy and wrangling into a plutocracy of smirking good Samaritans. This is the sort of stuff that never frighten liberals, who are happy to see their vested interests fortified in the hands of those who think just like them.

And this, perhaps, is why I reserve a certain fondness for director Fred Dekker’s often-mocked 1993 sequel “RoboCop 3.” There, the film’s namesake robotic constable functions not as a metalloid Christ cleansing the temple of American industry from conspicuously chicanerous capitalists, but as a hero of the disenfranchised. He’s an android golem, fighting on behalf of a ragtag revolutionary army of down-and-out Detroiters and pensionless public servants against the encroachment of corporate control (both domestic and foreign) and the steamrolling of Old Detroit. 

Despite the film’s arch-cartoonishness and family-friendly feel (it pares back the blood and gore for scenes of Robo battling Japanese ninja androids and whooshing around in a jetpack), “RoboCop 3” has little in the way of the original’s beloved “tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” It’s fueled by a more intersectional, revolutionary energy, in which everyday people band together to defend their retirement funds and stand up for their communities. It’s the sort of story that might actually trouble institutional liberals and do-gooder philanthrocapitalists, one in which a legitimate #Resistance rises up and asserts itself, with or without the help of a reprogrammed robotic police officer. It’s a message that, one might hope, will one day too be trumped up and over-hyped as acute and totally visionary.

Or maybe the better hope is to forgo the backward-looking fetish for prescience altogether, to turn away from Oceania and Gilead and Delta City and cast a caustic eye on the present, to ferret out the culture that will seem ahead of its time well down the line, and to see what’s coming — right now.

Health care and the fight for socialism

24 June 2017

The Senate Republicans’ bill to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, unveiled on Thursday and set for a vote next week, comes on the heels of last month’s passage of a similar measure in the House of Representatives. These two bills are a milestone in the decades-long drive by the American ruling class to eviscerate the bedrock social reforms of the 1930s and 1960s.

The central feature of both versions is the imposition of more than $800 billion in cuts to Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor and disabled, effectively ending its status as a guaranteed benefit program. The ultimate enactment of this class war legislation, whatever its precise form, will be the prelude to the privatization and dismantling of Medicare, the government insurance program for the elderly, and Social Security, the government pension system enacted at the height of the Depression in the 1930s.

Both the House and Senate bills cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy by more than $700 billion, eliminate requirements on businesses to provide health insurance for their employees, and allow states to exempt insurance firms from having to provide essential benefits such as doctors’ services, inpatient and outpatient hospital care, ambulance service, prescription drug coverage, pregnancy and childbirth care and mental health and substance abuse services.

What is involved here is a social counterrevolution. It has been underway for more than four decades, under Democratic as well as Republican administrations. It was accelerated under the Obama administration following the Wall Street crash of 2008. With the coming to power of Donald Trump, the billionaire personification of the American financial oligarchy, it is being raised to new heights of savagery.

What will be the impact of this legislation on the daily lives of working people in America? People suffering from diseases such as diabetes, asthma, even cancer will suddenly find that they can no longer afford to pay for the drugs upon which they depend to survive. Low income people—an estimated 23 million—will be stripped of all health coverage.

Millions of people will suffer needlessly, and many thousands will die an early death. For the authors of these bills and their corporate backers, this is not an unfortunate byproduct, but the deliberate aim of their health care “reform.” For the richest 10 percent who tower above the lower orders and control the political system and its two major parties, the diversion of money from profits and private bank accounts to keep working people alive and reasonably healthy—especially those too old to serve as a source of surplus value and profit—is an intolerable affront. Life expectancy in America is already declining and mortality rates are rising for the working class, in tandem with the colossal growth of social inequality. The ruling class wants to accelerate this process.

Is it an accident that the Republican plans single out for the biggest attacks low income older adults younger than 65, the age for Medicare eligibility? Insurers will be allowed to charge them five times more than they charge younger people. A 60-year-old woman earning $35,000 will have to spend nearly $6,000 of her own money to buy an insurance policy. It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that many thousands, unable to afford health insurance, will be killed off before they can begin to collect Medicare benefits, or, if they do manage to survive to age 65, will collect far fewer benefits because they will die an earlier death, their health having been undermined.

No one should mistake the verbal protests and parliamentary stunts of the Democrats for a serious struggle in defense of health care. The assault on the basic entitlement programs dating from the 1930s and 1960s was begun in earnest by Bill Clinton, who ended “welfare as we know it” during his term in the White House.

Barack Obama had the gall to denounce the Senate health bill as a “massive transfer of wealth from the middle class and poor families to the richest people in America.” True enough! But Trump is taking off where Obama left off. By means of trillions in Wall Street bailouts and subsidies to the banks and hedge funds that lifted stock prices and corporate profits to record heights, Obama presided over the greatest transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top in US history. Along the way he slashed auto workers’ wages and city workers’ pensions and health benefits and imposed brutal cuts in food stamps.

The explosion of the opioid and heroin epidemic that, along with surging suicide rates, is cutting the longevity of large sections of workers occurred on Obama’s watch. His Affordable Care Act set the stage for Trump’s intensified offensive on health care, slashing health care costs for corporations and the government while increasing out-of-pocket costs and reducing benefits for tens of millions of workers. It implemented the principle of partially subsidizing the purchase of insurance from private companies with government vouchers—the framework long advocated by Republicans seeking to privatize Medicare.

The current policy of the Democrats is to plead with the Republicans to negotiate a bipartisan “compromise” that will “fix” Obamacare, i.e., make further concessions to the profit-mad insurance giants by more drastically slashing benefits and raising premiums and deductibles.

The choice offered by the ruling class—between “Trumpcare” and “Obamacare”—is no choice at all. Both lead to untold suffering, misery and death. The working class will not accept the destruction of social gains for which it fought and bled, wrenching them from an unwilling corporate elite in the course of mass social struggles.

America, along with Europe and large swathes of the world, is heading into a new period of class struggle. What the experience of decades of austerity, war and political reaction shows is that the defense of the most basic social needs, such as health care, is today a revolutionary question. Capitalism in its advanced stage of crisis and putrefaction is incompatible with basic democratic and social rights—including the right to a decent-paying and secure job, health care, housing, education, access to culture and a secure retirement.

The working class must advance its own independent program against both Trump and the Democrats, based on the fight for socialism. Profit must be taken out of health care. The health care industry must be removed from private hands and placed under public ownership and the democratic control of the working class. This requires an implacable struggle against entrenched wealth and privilege, and the political system that enforces them.

Barry Grey and Kate Randall

 

WSWS

US Senate health care bill guts Medicaid, slashes taxes for the wealthy

 

By Kate Randall
23 June 2017

US Senate Republicans unveiled on Thursday the Better Care Reconciliation Act, their version of a plan to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Obama administration’s signature domestic legislation. The US House passed its own version, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), early last month.

Like the House plan, the Senate version guts Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled jointly administered by the federal government and the states, slashing its funding by hundreds of billions of dollars. It would mark the effective end of the program, which currently covers 75 million Americans, as a guaranteed program based on need.

Better Care also repeals virtually all of the ACA’s taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, effecting one of the largest redistributions of wealth from the poor to rich in US history. These tax cuts would be paid for by slashing health care coverage and raising costs for the vast majority of ordinary Americans, in particular targeting the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and those with preexisting conditions and disabilities.

The plan was drafted in secrecy by a “working group” of 13 senators, a process drawing criticism from both Republican and Democratic senators. As of Thursday evening, a group of four ultra-right Republican senators said they would not sign on to the bill, as it was not draconian enough, while other more moderate Senate Republicans said they needed to study the bill before making a decision.

However, it is likely that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be able to garner the votes of 50 out of 52 Republican senators to pass the legislation with a simple majority, counting on the vote of Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie. The bill would then be sent to a conference with the House, where a final version would be agreed, before being sent to President Trump to sign. Senate leaders hope to receive a scoring on the bill from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) early next week and vote on it before the July 4 recess.

Medicaid

The Senate bill would convert Medicaid to a “per capita cap” funding system, in which states would get a lump sum from the federal government for each enrollee. States could also choose to receive a block grant instead, not tied to the number of Medicaid enrollees. This would effectively end Medicaid as an “entitlement” program, so-called because the funding is expanded automatically as people qualify on the basis of need.

The legislation would also change the way federal payments to Medicaid are calculated. The Senate bill would tether funding growth to the Medical Consumer Price Index plus 1 percentage point through 2025, then change over to the urban Consumer Price Index (CPI). This would amount to a funding cut to Medicaid, as the cost of health care typically goes up faster than the CPI.

The bill would also end the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare by 2021. This extended coverage to an estimated 14 million people, mainly low-income adults earning below 138 percent of the poverty line (about $15,000 for an individual), in the 31 states plus the District of Columbia that opted to participate in the expansion.

Better Care defunds Planned Parenthood for one year, meaning Medicaid patients could no longer seek treatment of any kind at the nonprofit organization’s clinics. This will result in forgone screenings, less access to contraceptive and abortion services, and more unintended pregnancies, as well as maternal and infant deaths.

CBO scoring of the House bill, which makes similar cuts, estimated it would slash overall funding to Medicaid by $880 billion over a decade. The cutbacks would force states to remove people from Medicaid, reduce the range of services covered, and cut reimbursements to doctors, hospitals and drug companies.

Tax cuts

The Senate bill cuts taxes on net investment income for wealthy people, repeals an ACA Medicare tax on wealthy people, and eliminates taxes on health insurers, medical device companies and tanning salons.

Better Care repeals a 3.8 percent tax on net investment income (capital gains, dividends, etc.) for individuals making more than $200,000 a year or for couples making more than $250,000. In one of the bill’s most brazen giveaways to the rich, this repeal is not only immediate, but retroactive to capital gains made earlier this year.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that around 90 percent of the tax cuts will go to households with more than $700,000 in annual income, the top 1 percent, who will be freed from the 3.8 percent tax, along with a 0.9 percent payroll surtax on their salaries.

Smaller subsidies, skimpier coverage

The bill would make much less generous subsidies available to low- and middle-income people to purchase health insurance (people earning less than 350 percent of the poverty line, compared to the ACA’s 400 percent cutoff). Individuals earning less than $41,580 and families of four making less than $85,050 would be covered. However, the size of the tax credits would be tied to what it takes to purchase insurance with poorer coverage.

Insurance companies would be able to charge older adults not yet eligible for Medicare five times more than younger people, compared to three times more under Obamacare. The bill would also change the definition of “affordable” insurance. For example, a 60-year-old who earns $35,640 a year would be required to spend 16.2 percent of annual income, or $5,773, before receiving any assistance from the government. Overall, working-class families would pay higher premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs for health insurance that covers much less.

Essential benefits and preexisting conditions

The Senate bill would allow states to seek a waiver from ACA requirements for insurers to cover essential benefits, such as maternity care, prescription drugs, substance abuse and mental health services, emergency care, and other vital services.

While Senate Republicans claim their legislation keeps in place protections for those with preexisting conditions, in practice insurers would be able to skirt these protections by simply offering plans that don’t cover a range of preconditions, such as diabetes, cancer, prenatal care, etc.

Such waivers could also affect those with employer-sponsored insurance. For example, large employers in a waiver state could restrict services, impose lifetime limits on health care costs and eliminate out-of-pocket caps from their plans.

Better Care eliminates the individual mandate, which requires those without coverage from their employer or from a government program to purchase insurance or pay a tax penalty. Due to the “reconciliation” process, the bill cannot eliminate the mandate, but it reduces the penalty to zero. Employers with 50 or more employers would also not be penalized if they fail to provide insurance to their workers.

While gutting the mandates, the Senate plan keeps the insurance marketplaces set up under the ACA intact, but insurance will be more expensive and cover less.

While Republicans in both the Senate and House, as well as the Trump administration, have set as their goal repealing and replacing Obamacare, both the AHCA and the Better Care Reconciliation Act keep the ACA’s basic structure in place—all while repealing taxes for the wealthy, gutting Medicaid and raising costs and cutting services for working and middle-class people.

This is in part the result of the procedure chosen for repeal. Lacking the 60 votes to overcome a Senate filibuster, the Republican leadership chose to employ “reconciliation,” which is limited to a single bill each year, and requires only a simple majority. The rules governing reconciliation are arcane, and prevent changes in policy that have no fiscal impact, such as a ban on insurance companies covering abortion, which was dropped from the Senate bill.

But in the final analysis, there was no need to repeal Obamacare outright, since it accomplishes many of the goals agreed on by both capitalist parties. As the WSWS has maintained from the start, Obamacare was aimed at cutting costs for the government and corporations while rationing health care for the vast majority. Whatever version of “Trumpcare” eventually emerges from Congress for the president to sign will take the tendencies already present in the Affordable Care Act, then strip off the limited concessions it offered in the way of Medicaid expansion, essential services and other inadequate protections.

Obamacare took as its starting point the entrenched for-profit system of health care delivery in America, which is based on enriching the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies and the giant hospital chains.

With this as its basis, the ACA had as its aim the development of an even more openly class-based health care system than what previously existed, in which workers and their families are left with rising costs, cut-rate care, or no coverage at all, and the super-rich and privileged upper-middle-class layer avail themselves of the best medical care that money can buy.

As we wrote last year, through its tax credit system and marketplace exchanges, “[T]he ACA essentially establishes a voucher system, whereby minimal government subsidies are given to individuals to purchase private health insurance. It thereby serves as a model for the future privatization of the key government programs, Medicare and Medicaid, wrenched from the ruling class through bitter working class struggles in the last century.”

The Democrats have predictably denounced the Senate plan as a boondoggle for the rich, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer railing against the tax breaks for the rich and the millions who stand to lose coverage.

But they have little to offer in way of an alternative, except the maintenance of the Obamacare status quo, or “working with” the Republicans to fix it. That is because they believe in the underlying premise that health care in America must remain at the mercy of the for-profit health care industry, and that the provision of health care must conform to the interests of the capitalist market.

As the WSWS wrote in July 2009, more than six months before the ACA became law, the Obama administration’s “drive for an overhaul of the health care system, far from representing a reform designed to provide universal coverage and increased access to quality care, marks an unprecedented attack on health care for the working population. It is an effort to roll back social gains associated with the enactment of Medicare in 1965.”

The Republicans’ attack on Medicaid, embodied in both the AHCA and the Better Care bill, marks a further step in this direction.

The face of Republican evil: It’s not Donald Trump

Mitch McConnell’s gruesome health care scam reveals the corrupt, antidemocratic character of the entire GOP

In the hellish months since Donald Trump’s inauguration, a dark parlor game of sorts has cropped up in liberal circles that I like to call “Would an Impeachment Even Be Worth It?” With the full acknowledgment that it’s unlikely to happen as long as Republicans are in charge, participants still sip cocktails and ponder out loud the question of whether booting out Trump on his butt would be enough to save our democracy, considering the fact that the Republican slimeball taking his place would invariably sign a bunch of retrograde legislation setting back this country decades.

These discussions break down into two camps: those who think Trump presents a unique threat to our democracy and replacing him with someone in the succession line, like Vice President Mike Pence or House Speaker Paul Ryan, would at least preserve our democratic norms; and those who think the corruption started long before Trump and has spread throughout the Republican Party, rotting it from the inside out.

Consider me in the latter camp, which makes me kind of unpopular in these discussions. Unfortunately, my view that the Republican Party as a whole is irredeemably antidemocratic has been borne out, yet again, in the process that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has put into motion to destroy the Affordable Health Act, a process that will likely take out the U.S. health care system as we know it.

One could even argue that bog-standard Republicans, under the leadership of Ryan and McConnell, represent an bigger threat to our democracy than Trump, possessing as they do more competence and cunning than the TV-addled overgrown toddler in the White House.

As Heather Digby Parton, writing for Salon, recently detailed, McConnell has arranged to have the Senate version of the House’s American Health Care Act (which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would ultimately leave 23 million Americans uninsured) written in secret, with no hearings, no public discussion and no real debate. Republicans are barely even pretending the reason is anything other than the obvious: The bill is so terrible that it defies the will of people of all political stripes and sensibilities, whom legislators supposedly were elected to serve. When called out on this obvious fact, Republicans are just smirking or squawking “fake news” but not actually offering any contravening evidence.

McConnell’s contempt for the processes, much less the defining principles, of democracy couldn’t be more apparent. But he doesn’t really care. No doubt the election of Trump helped confirm the rising sense among Republicans that they can wipe their collective butts with the Constitution, flip the bird at their constituents and not really worry about losing many seats. Republican voters might not like it, but they like liberals, black people and feminists even less, so they will show up and dutifully vote against the Democrats every time. Losing health care access isn’t great, but for conservative voters, admitting that liberals might have a point is a hell from which there is no escape.

This Republican contempt for democracy was evident long before Trump started grasping for the presidential nomination with his stubby orange fingers. McConnell was so unwilling to accept the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s two substantial presidential election victories that the Republican leader refused to acknowledge Obama’s right to nominate a Supreme Court justice after Antonin Scalia’s death. Not only did that work out perfectly for McConnell — he got Neil Gorsuch onto the high court, instead of rightful nominee Merrick Garland — but it proved once and for all that bedrock conservative voters don’t care about niceties like the rule of law or government by the people. They just want to punish women for having sex and gripe about “Obama phones,” and don’t care if the price paid is the ultimate ruin of this country.

Trump didn’t make Republicans corrupt. They were already there. That’s why he hasn’t really needed to do any arm-twisting or commit blackmail, no matter how much he’d like to, in order to get a GOP-controlled Congress willing to look the other way when presented with a growing pile of evidence that something weird is going on with Trump and the Russians.

It’s easier to not care if Russian intelligence is actively seeking to subvert U.S. elections for those who aggressively try to deny voting rights to millions of Americans, especially people of color and younger voters who insist on voting for Democrats.

At this point, the Republican rejection of democracy is an established fact. The only question is how far the ruling party is willing to take it. The antidemocratic, secretive process surrounding the GOP’s health care bill suggests there may be no real limit.

 

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She’s on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

Grenfell Tower fire victims and survivors treated with contempt by UK authorities

By Robert Stevens
22 June 2017

Those who perished in horrific deaths and the survivors of the Grenfell Tower inferno—which has killed at least 79 people—are overwhelmingly poor and working-class.

Their deaths were the result of the policies of successive governments, going back nearly four decades, through which the social rights of working people, including the right to safe housing, have been eviscerated.

Numerous representatives of the political elite and their media backers have engaged in handwringing and mock indignation over the fate of the victims. Their real attitude, however, is shown in the way that the survivors and their families have been treated by the authorities, with undisguised class hatred and contempt.

This is sanctioned from the very top of government. For days, there was no governmental or local authority assistance for the victims. It took two days for Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May to make a 30-minute visit to the site, where she was kept away from the public on “security” grounds. Only after the awareness of growing anger in London and nationwide finally hit home in ruling circles was an emergency relief fund initiated. This was after public donations had already raised more than £3 million—totally independently of the government.

The official “Grenfell Tower Residents’ Discretionary Fund” is a pittance of just £5 million. Of this, a minuscule £500 is being made available as an upfront payment to those who were burnt out of their homes. Another £5,000 is supposedly to be transferred into their bank accounts, which many cannot access, as their entire possessions went up in flames. As of Tuesday, the £5 million has barely been touched, with one news channel reporting that a total of just £330,000 has been paid out to survivors.

This is approximately half of the amount spent on refurbishing the Tower with the combustible cladding that almost certainly enabled the fire to spread with such devastating speed.

Moreover, it stands in stark contrast to the £369 million in taxpayers’ money that has been granted to the Royal Family for a 10-year refurbishing of Buckingham Palace, which stands in the same London borough. The lives of 80 people, if not many more, and the destitution of an untold number displaced—who have lost everything they possessed—is valued at just a tiny fraction of the amount being lavished on one family, already amongst the most privileged in the country.

The work on the Queen’s official residence, estimated to be worth £2.2 billion, will include replacing cables, lead pipes, wiring and boilers. When it was announced last year, a statement from Buckingham Palace read, “An independent specialist report concluded that without urgent work there is a risk of serious damage to the palace and the precious royal collection items it houses from, amongst other scenarios, fire and water damage.”

No such concerns ever crossed the minds of those in power responsible for Grenfell Tower, and the fate of around 600 people, who were left without the most basic safety requirements, including a central fire alarm and sprinkler system.

It was clear to all from the very outset that the fire was a major catastrophe requiring a massive emergency response. Yet no such co-ordinated action was organised by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) council—despite it being the wealthiest local authority in the country—to offer emergency respite, including the provision of food, drink, warmth and shelter to those devastated by the crisis. This was their response to working class people, some of whom fled the blaze in terror wearing just t-shirts and their underwear.

It was the local population and others who rushed to the area, coming from as far afield as Birmingham, to organize support and help for those who fled the inferno. Many of those assisting were visibly shocked at the lack of any official emergency operation, complaining they had worked for days providing food, clothes and shelter, with no assistance from the authorities.

The inaction of the RBKC meant that hundreds of people made homeless by the fire, including those who lived in rented social housing adjacent to Grenfell—told to vacate their homes on safety grounds—were not provided with any proper alternative accommodation. Instead many were dumped at the nearby “official rescue centre”—Westway Sport and Fitness Centre. Here they were forced to sleep on the sports hall floor, on rubber mats with sleeping bags and makeshift pillows.

Seeing their plight, many Londoners offered survivors rooms in their houses and access to food, drinks and shower facilities.

Rather than provide decent accommodation for the victims and demand government step in to ensure it, RBKC has sent around 250 of those affected by the fire to stay temporarily in dingy hotels all over the capital.

Speaking to ITV’s Peston on Sunday show, West London film producer Nisha Parti, who has been helping victims of the fire, said, “Victims were going to hotels, arriving at hotels, with no one from the council to greet them, to check them in, to give them clothes and food.” Parti revealed that Kensington and Chelsea council were giving just £10 a day to the survivors on arrival at the hotels, an amount even lower than the daily amount allotted in welfare payments to the unemployed. This barely allowed its destitute recipients to pay for a sandwich and a beverage.

Reports also emerged that RBKC council were sending Grenfell and nearby residents into accommodation miles away from London. The council denied claims that people have been sent outside of central London.

This however is contradicted by accounts, including the detailed statement given by one survivor, who lived in a flat on Grenfell’s 17th floor and who managed to escape from the blaze with his aunt.

In a video widely shared on social media, the young man explained that, “Another guy, they took him out of the hotel [the council originally sent him to] and they sent him to Preston…They [the council] are putting pressure on people that if you don’t accept their offer [of accommodation] you are making yourself intentionally homeless.”

He also revealed that one of his neighbours—whose wife had died in the fire and who “was in a terrible place right now and losing it”—was “put in an old people’s home. He’s not going to get rehoused now. That’s it.”

He continued, “They are doing some disgusting things. They are cutting corners and we are already scared about what’s going to happen to us.”

By announcing the fund, May was acknowledging the scale of opposition that was developing against her pro-austerity government and the ruling elite, fuelled by the blatant refusal of the government and the Conservative-run local authority to assist survivors. May said, “Frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough.”

Yet even as she was forced to state this, after denying it for days, May would not guarantee those made homeless would be rehoused in the borough, only that “as far as possible” they would be placed “within the borough or neighbouring boroughs. Some people may actually want to go to another part of London.”

Shortly after May’s statement, furious local residents descended on Kensington Town Hall to demand “Justice for Grenfell” and that those suffering be afforded basic, civilised treatment. Thousands more participated in a demonstration that marched through central London.

The Labour MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, told the BBC’s Sunday Politics show, “We are still hearing stories of people not being allocated properly. There’s one woman this morning and her child, they have been moved three times since Wednesday into different accommodation.”

On Tuesday evening, almost a week after the fire, Sky News reported that a number of survivors were still sleeping in the Westway Centre. They feared, it reported, that if they went elsewhere council officials would wash their hands of them entirely and prevent them from being rehoused in the borough. Sky reported that it had been told that a number of people were sleeping in cars and even in parks since the fire and had received no assistance.

The callous disregard for human suffering by the powers that be and the humiliating treatment that survivors have been subjected to over the past week is an object lesson in the real priorities of the ruling elite.

The terrible, entirely preventable, catastrophe unleashed on the Grenfell residents and the working-class community around it reveals the true face of a society in which a sated layer of multi-millionaires and billionaires wallow in unimaginable wealth and privilege while working people are condemned to live in death traps.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/22/vict-j22.html