The lie of white “economic insecurity”: Race, class and the rise of Donald Trump

The media loves to promote the lie that the white working class supports Trump and the GOP for economic reasons

The lie of white "economic insecurity": Race, class and the rise of Donald Trump
(Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar)

Questions of race and class have cast a heavy shadow over a presidential campaign in which “economic insecurity” has been repeatedly identified (quite incorrectly) by the mainstream news media as the driving force behind the rise of Donald Trump. In response, there has been a flurry of recent articles and essays exploring how matters of race and class are influencing the decision by “white working class” voters to support Donald Trump’s fascist, racist and nativist campaign for the White House.

Writing at The Guardian, sociologist Arlie Hochschild offers a devastating critique of how race and class intersect for white working-class American voters. In “How the Great Paradox of American Politics Holds the Secret to Trump’s Success,” Hochschild explores how white voters in the South and elsewhere rationalize their support for a Republican Party and a “small government” ethos that has devastated their lives and communities. She tells this story by focusing on one person, Lee Sherman, and his journey from pipefitter at a petrochemical plant to environmental activist and whistleblower to eventual Tea Party activist. Hochschild writes:

Yet over the course of his lifetime, Sherman had moved from the left to the right. When he lived as a young man in Washington State, he said proudly, “I ran the campaign of the first woman to run for Congress in the state.” But when he moved from Seattle to Dallas for work in the 1950s, he shifted from conservative Democrat to Republican, and after 2009, to the Tea Party. So while his central life experience had been betrayal at the hands of industry, he now felt – as his politics reflected – most betrayed by the federal government. He believed that PPG and many other local petrochemical companies at the time had done wrong, and that cleaning the mess up was right. He thought industry would not “do the right thing” by itself. But still he rejected the federal government. Indeed, Sherman embraced candidates who wanted to remove nearly all the guardrails on industry and cut the EPA. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration had vastly improved life for workmen such as Sherman – and he appreciated those reforms – but he felt the job was largely done.

Lee Sherman’s story is all too common. Because of political socialization by the right-wing media, the Christian evangelical movement, and closed personal and social networks, many white conservative voters are unable to practice the systems level thinking necessary to connect their day-to-day struggles with the policies put in place by the Republican Party.

While this way of seeing and understanding the social and political world (what Walt Whitman influentially described as “the pictures inside of people’s heads”) may be at odds with the type of critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning that liberals and progressives take for granted, it still exerts a powerful hold over many millions of conservatives. This alternate reality is, not surprisingly, anchored in place by the right-wing disinformation machine and Fox News.

Hochschild’s essay is further evidence of what I suggested in an earlier piece here at Salon: Republicans and the broader right-wing movement profit from a Machiavellian relationship where the more economic pain and suffering they inflict on red-state America, the more popular and powerful they become with those voters. This is political sadism as a campaign strategy.

Politico’s “What’s Going on With America’s White People?” features commentary by leading scholars and journalists such as Anne Case, Angus Denton, Nancy Isenberg, Carol Anderson and J.D. Vance, whose collective work examines the relationships between race, class and white America. The piece highlights how death anxieties greatly influence the political calculations and decision-making of white conservatives in red-state America. These people use their own broken communities — places that are awash in prescription drug addictions, have high rates of out-of-wedlock births and divorce, and see deaths of despair (suicide by guns and alcohol; chronic untreated illnesses) reign — to draw incorrect conclusions about America as a whole. These anxieties have combined with increasing levels of authoritarianism, racial resentment and old-fashioned racism among white conservatives and right-leaning independents to fuel extreme political polarization and make the emergence of a demagogue such as Donald Trump a near inevitability.

If the fever swamps that birthed Donald Trump are to be drained, there needs to be a renewed focus on the dynamics of race and class for white (conservative) voters during this 2016 presidential election. But these analyses should also be accompanied by several qualifiers.

First, liberals and progressives are often easily seduced by a narrative, popularized by Thomas Frank and others, in which white working-class and poor Americans are depicted as having been hoodwinked into voting for the Republican Party. In this argument, white poor and working-class red-state voters chose “culture war” issues over economic policies. However, as compellingly demonstrated by political scientist Larry Bartels (and complemented by fellow political scientist Andrew Gelman), poor and other lower-income voters tend to vote for the Democratic Party while middle- and upper-income voters tend to vote for the Republican Party. Poor and lower-income (white) voters participate in formal politics less frequently than middle- and upper-income voters. Moreover, “culture war” issues did not drive a mass defection of white working-class voters from the Democratic Party to the GOP.  In total, it is white economic and political elites and not the white poor and working classes who are largely responsible for the political and social dysfunction that plagues American politics today.

Second, since its very founding America has been struggling with two powerful impulses. On one hand, there is a truly progressive and left-wing type of pluralism that seeks to work across lines of race and class in order to create an inclusive democracy where upward mobility and the fruits of full citizenship are equally attainable for all people. This type of pluralism is embodied by Bernie Sanders — and to a lesser degree Hillary Clinton and the broader Democratic Party. Juxtaposed against this is a right-wing and reactionary type of pluralism that is exclusive and not inclusive, stokes the fires of racial and ethnic division, and offers a vision of America where white people stand on the necks of non-whites in order to elevate themselves. This is embodied by Donald Trump and a Republican Party that functions as the United States’ largest de facto white identity organization.

Most importantly, the white “working-class” and poor voters featured in the recent pieces by Politico and The Guardian possess agency. It has long been fashionable for liberals and progressives to suggest that the white poor and working classes are confused by “false consciousness” as demonstrated by their allegiance to America’s racial hierarchy and an economic system that often disadvantages people like them. In reality, the white poor and working class are keenly aware of the psychological and material advantages that come with whiteness and white privilege.

Whiteness is a type of property in the United States. For centuries, white people, across lines of class and gender, have coveted and fiercely protected it. The white working class and poor are not victims in this system; they have benefited greatly from it at the expense of non-whites. Ultimately, as Americans try to puzzle through their current political morass, a renewed emphasis on race and class is invaluable because it serves as a reminder of how simple binaries (one must choose between discussing either “race” or “class”) and crude essentialism (“a focus on class inequality will do more good than confronting racism!”) often disguises and confuses more than it reveals.

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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To Beat Trump, Clinton Resurrects Triangulation and the Politics of Fear

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The enduring cliche of the 2016 election is a comment by Trump that provokes outrage, rebukes, and the declaration, “He’s gone too far.” This happened the moment Trump declared his presidential bid by denigrating Mexicans, then when he attacked veterans, women, the disabled, Muslims, and the judiciary among others, and most recently with his vendetta against Khizr and Ghazala Khan.

Trump’s attack on the Khans seems curious as he had nothing to gain. The couple grabbed the moral high ground at the Democratic National Convention by pointedly telling Trump, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one,” in reference to the death of their son as a U.S. Army officer in Iraq in 2004.

The self-inflicted wounds are unlikely to cause Trump permanent harm, however. The New York Times found his attacks on military members and families mainly affected the opinion of undecided veterans, a sliver of voters. Trump also recovered after a similar racist tirade against a U.S.-born judge overseeing lawsuits against the defunct Trump University. Republicans inside the Beltway freaked out in private over Trump’s antics, but in public they are loathe to break with him when polls show 81 percent of the party supports him along with 41 percent of the public overall.

Moreover, Trump’s ranting about the Khans is consistent with his trickle-down revenge and nativism that’s congealed a white nationalist rebellion around him. It shows little sign of faltering. In battlegrounds like Ohio, North Carolina, and Iowa, Trump trails Clinton by less than 1 percent. And while Democrats have opened up new fronts in Arizona and Georgia, Trump lags by 6 percent or less in delegate-rich states such as Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, and Nevada.

Digging into local data in Ohio and Pennsylvania exposes the seismic shifts in public attitudes that Trump capitalized on. In Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, a white working-class enclave Obama won by five points in 2012, Trump has a 23-point lead over Clinton. Ohio’s Mahoning and Trumbull counties are the heart of now-vanished “Little Steel” that Obama handily won in 2012 with more than 60 percent of the vote. But with voters flocking to him, Trump is poised to flip these former union strongholds. Even if many working-class whites are intoxicated by Trump’s racism, they are equally embittered by their declining economic fortunes under Obama.

These whites are America’s Brexit voters, battered workers distrustful of politicians, media, and business leaders who have hoodwinked them for decades about the benefits of globalization and empire, even if their anger is nursed on a diet of bigotry and bizarre conspiracies. So they shrug off Trump’s tantrums or spread slander such as Khan is an “al Qaeda double agent.” As some have told Telesur, they support Trump because they want him “to blow up the system.”

Trump’s allegiance to the Republican Party is limited to hijacking it for his outsized ego and ambitions. But he has a death grip on the wheel of the GOP and is blase about driving it off a cliff. Even in defeat Trump will emerge victorious with an army of aggrieved whites, a fundraising machine, and a megaphone to foment trouble. He is already spinning racially tinged yarns that if he loses it’s because the election is rigged. If Clinton triumphs as seems likely, the Trumpian hordes will treat her as delegitimized even before she assumes office.

Given elite antipathy toward Trump there is a danger of underestimating his chances. In July his campaign and the Republican National Committee hauled in $82 million, mostly in small contributions that indicate the depth and breadth of his support. Fine-tuned demographic analysis reveals up to 10 million more white voters over 45 who lack a college degree—Trump’s bedrock—than previously estimated nationwide. If Trump sticks within a point of Clinton in the polls, this subterranean force could tip the election his way, just like Brexit passed despite consistently trailing in surveys.

Hillary Clinton’s strategy is to revert to Clintonian form. In 1994, congressional Democrats were shellacked by Newt Gingrich’s mob of bigots, bomb-throwers, and conspiracists who established right-wing rule of the House that has lasted for all but four of the last 22 years. Bill Clinton responded with “triangulation,” treating unions and progressives as the left counterpart to the rabid right. He staked out the center with insipid initiatives like a “national conversation on race” and a push for school uniforms meant to distract from his anti-poor agenda that rivaled Reagan’s. Meanwhile, Clinton spent his second-term political capital on free trade, loosening banking and commodities regulations, and supercharging media monopolies.

Fast forward a couple of decades to the 2016 DNC. To their credit, Sanders and his rebellious supporters wrested concessions from the Democrats. But Hillary Clinton’s vague calls for raising Social Security benefits, a living wage, tuition-free college, and a jobs program for infrastructure served a purpose other than placating the left. Her proposals sugar-coated the triangulation at the DNC. Nods to social justice and Black Lives Matter were drowned out by bigwigs extolling patriotism, God, militarism, and American exceptionalism. Gen. John Allen said with Clinton as commander-in-chief, the United States would continue to be the “indispensable, transformational power in the world” with a military that would “defeat ISIS … defeat evil” while equipped with “the finest weapons, the greatest equipment.”

Likewise, the Democrats calculated they could insult their base by featuring Michael Bloomberg as a prime-time speaker with little backlash. As New York City mayor, Bloomberg bitterly fought attempts to end racist stop-and-frisk, had police spy on every mosquein a 100-mile radius, imposed big rent increases on millions, and attacked public schools, social programs, and unions with gusto. Bloomberg was only the first billionaire for Clinton, with Mark Cuban, Meg Whitman, and Warren Buffet trotted out after the convention.Whitman is doubly notable as Clinton had courted the right-wing tech executive and she was joined by other prominent Republicans in backing Clinton.

Then in an utterly cynical maneuver, Obama announced days after the DNC he would push the lame-duck Congress to pass the Trans Pacific Partnership this year. It showed the dishonesty of Clinton and her V.P. pick Tim Kaine in suddenly claiming they were opposed to the trade deal after consistently championing it.

New Deal liberals like Thomas Frank fret that Clinton’s right-wing swerves risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But this is a misreading of history. The elite are aware that the Democrats are more capable managers of capitalist globalization, diplomacy, and war than the Republicans. It’s why Clinton is attracting a bipartisan cast of Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the mainstream media, and the military and foreign policy establishment.

Clinton also has unions, feminists, and civil rights groups behind her. They serve as progressive window dressing and troops for swing-state trench warfare in return for a “seat at the table” but no real say. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told me at the DNC that organized labor is with Clinton because the Democratic agenda “is our agenda.” When I pressed Trumka about Clinton’s record of supporting nearly every free-trade deal that came before her, he responded, “I’m not worried at all, she’s against TPP” (before smacking me in the face with a cardboard sign).

Trumka is covering for Clinton, and misleading workers, because organized labor has no strategy other than clinging to the globalization express and begging for crumbs off the banquet table. The Democratic election strategy is to win the Rust Belt through micro-targeting of uncommitted whites, a massive canvassing and get-out-the-vote operation, deploying the good ol’ boy band of Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Kaine, and pounding Trump in the media from every imaginable angle—including harkening back a half-century to the infamous daisy ad to ring the alarm about Trump with the nuclear codes. Clinton is also counting on Trump to keep shooting himself in the foot, and he looks likely to oblige. Big business, celebrities, and Obama will throw their full weight behind Clinton. Democrats need to peel off only a small percentage of whites in the industrial Midwest to decisively defeat Trump.

Overall, Democrats are happy to paint white workers as irredeemably racist so they can reject working-class politics. If determined, Democrats could enact legal and regulatory changes that provide unions with the tools to rebuild the labor movement. But that would alienate the corporate constituency the Democratic Party belongs to and relies on for its core support. The logical path, then, for the Clintons, Obama, and the rest is to look to the right for votes.

The Democrats are seeking a historic triangulation by trying to occupy the center for a generation. They will then berate the left, telling them there is nowhere else to go, and watch the radical right flail around with guns and sinister ideas, damaging society but not elite power. The Democrats think they can deliver a fatal blow both to Trump and Trumpism with a blowout victory this election, while demographics takes care of any lingering threat. But this is a fantasy as Clinton’s right-wing policies will produce new white nationalist threats, as they did during the 1990s. And elements on the right are taking advantage of the Democrats’ disdain for workers by scheming on how to turn the GOP into “a (white) workers’ party.”

From this viewpoint, the left response is simple: it should do nothing to help Clinton, not even push people to vote for her in swing states. If Clinton can’t beat Trump with the combined might of capital and labor, then a tiny, disorganized, threadbare left is not going to make any difference. Instead, the left should affirm people’s right to decide if they want to vote and then whom to vote for, such as Jill Stein, Sanders, Vermin Supreme (my favorite), or Clinton. And it should denounce Clinton apologists working feverishly to bully or scare people into voting for her. Fear-based politics makes a mockery of any democratic claims.

Jill Stein will far outstrip her 2012 vote total of 469,000 as she harvests the anti-Clinton vote on the left. But her current polling average of 4 percent will shrink by election day, which is typical of third-party candidates. Stein serves a vital role by blasting Clinton for a “terrifying track record” on the economy, foreign policy, and climate change. She reminds voters Clinton is distinctly dangerous. But pouring energy into Stein’s bid replicates the mistake of prioritizing electoral politics above all else. Third-party presidential runs measure discontent that exists. They do little to build radical movements and often divert energy and resources from organizing. (Though local elections can create space and provide aid for movements.)

But there should also be no illusions about a Trump presidency. It would be open season for the police, state, and vigilantes on Black Lives Matter, Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans, and the left. Left forces would be on their heels, fighting limited defensive battles and grateful to survive, even in a weakened state. Whatever remains of Sanders political revolution would dry up and blow away.

But climbing on the Clinton train means muting criticism of her right-wing policies. It would hobble the left going into four years of more war, more free trade, more oil and gas drilling under Clinton. And that’s exactly what the Wall Street Democrats want.

The left should concentrate on what it does best: laying the groundwork for new movements such as the antiwar and global justice movements, Occupy Wall Street, union, immigrant, and low-wage worker organizing, and Black Lives Matter. Clinton has bankers and liberals, pundits and billionaires, hawks and Republicans all advocating for her. Someone needs to advocate for people.

Originally published by Telesur English.

Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, Salon, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming “Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste” (The New Press).

http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/08/08/to-beat-trump-clinton-resurrects-triangulation-and-the-politics-of-fear/

Listen, your party is the “neo” kind of liberal

Why do the Democrats always disappoint their most loyal supporters? Thomas Frank’s excellent book helps explains the party’s betraying ways, says Lance Selfa.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

THE NEW York Times headline on July 28 said it all: “After Lying Low, Deep-Pocketed Clinton Donors Return to the Fore.”

Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick’s article proceeded to document the myriad ways in which corporations, from the Wall Street firm Blackstone Group to for-profit college giant Apollo Education Group, peddled influence at fancy parties around Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.

Yes, that Democratic convention. The same one that featured dozens of speakers denouncing Wall Street and crushing student debt? Whose presidential nominee pledged to get big money out of elections?

Turns out that “it’s business as usual,” as Libby Watson of the Sunlight Foundation told the Times writers.

Author Thomas Frank wouldn’t be surprised by this latest glimpse of how the Democratic Party does business. His Listen, Liberal is an engaging and witty demolition of the party, especially its modern post-New Deal incarnation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE DEMOCRATS don’t see it as a contradiction to issue election-year platitudes about supporting “working families” while courting millions from the “rocket scientist” financial engineers behind the Wall Street hedge funds or the self-styled “disrupters” who run for-profit educational corporations.

REVIEW: BOOKS

Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Henry Holt and Co., 2016. 320 pages, $12.99. Find out more at ListenLiberal.com.

As the GEICO TV ad might say, “It’s what they do.”

To Frank, this provides much of the explanation for why the Obama presidency has been such a disappointment for those who believed in candidate Obama’s message of “hope and change” in 2008.

In 2008, the economy was melting down, taking free-market orthodoxy with it. The Democrats swept to power in Congress and the White House. If there was ever a time that the conditions were ripe for a bold reformist program–which would have been massively popular–this was it.

Yet it didn’t happen. Two years later, the Tea Party Republicans took back the House in the midterm elections, and the administration deepened its commitment to austerity and the search for a “grand bargain” for bipartisan support to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Frank rehearses the standard liberal excuses for Obama’s failures, quoting the president himself about how hard it is to get things done (“It’s hard to turn an ocean liner”). Frank then proceeds to knock these down, one by one.

He shows convincingly how, using only executive action, Obama could have unwound the Bush administration bailouts for the Wall Street bankers and pressed bankruptcy judges to reduce or wipe out the mortgage holders’ debt. At the very least, he could have refused to allow executives from the insurance giant AIG to collect their multimillion-dollar bonuses from the taxpayers’ dime.

Instead, Obama and his Treasury team of Ivy Leaguers on leave from Wall Street reassured the banksters that he was on their side. Frank reprises the critical scene from Ron Suskind’s 2010 book Confidence Men: A description of a high-level meeting that began with Obama warning Wall Street that “my administration is the only thing between you and pitchforks”–and ended with a relieved CEO telling Suskind that Obama “could have ordered us to do just about anything, and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t–he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

As Frank concludes:

Having put so much faith in his transformative potential, his followers need to come to terms with how non-transformative he has been. It wasn’t because the ocean liner would have been too hard to turn, or because those silly idealists were unrealistic; it was because [the administration] didn’t want to do those things.

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HOW DID the Democrats come to power amid the worst crisis since the Great Depression and basically operate according to the same-old-same-old model? In trying to explain this, Frank lands on an explanation that is inadequate–more on that below–despite the insights it offers.

To him, the Obama team, like Bill Clinton before him–and probably Hillary Clinton after–couldn’t conceive of a different course because they approached problems from their vantage point as wealthy, highly educated professionals.

Like the whiz kids on Wall Street or health care industry policy wonks, they appreciated complex solutions that balanced multiple interests while generally preserving the status quo. Think of Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, whose enforcement regulations are still being written six years after its passage.

The roots of this worship of professional expertise and support for market-based policies, according to Frank, can be found in party operatives’ desire to build a new Democratic coalition to replace the New Deal coalition of the 1930s through the 1960s. From George McGovern’s early 1970s “new politics” to the Democratic Leadership Council’s “new Democrats” of the 1980s and 1990s, these figures sought to distance the party from organized labor in favor of the “new middle class” of credentialed professionals.

Voting statistics show that college graduates still tend to be Republican territory more than Democratic. But there’s little doubt that a middle-class ideology of “social liberalism and fiscal conservatism” reigns supreme in the Democratic Party today.

To show this in full bloom, Frank considers the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston as exemplars. Both depend heavily on the “knowledge industries” of higher education, finance and health care. And both have been Democratic bastions for generations.

If the Democratic mayors of Boston and a Democratic-dominated statehouse hand out tax breaks to corporations, enact anti-labor pension “reforms,” and promote charter schools or amenities catering to middle-class professionals, it isn’t because Republicans forced them to. It’s because the Democrats actually believe this stuff, and profit from it.

In this “blue state model,” Frank writes:

Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and yet which increase at a pace far more rapid than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, thirty grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.

Left behind are places like Lynn, Massachusetts, a once thriving industrial town, now depopulated and deindustrialized–“engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats,” Frank writes. Or Decatur, Illinois, which Frank revisits 20 years after he had reported on the “War Zone” labor battles that dramatized the death of the American dream for thousands of blue-collar unionized workers

In the mid-1990s, Frank writes:

Decatur was far away from Washington, and its problems made no impression that I could detect on Bill Clinton’s wise brain trust. The New Economy was dawning, creativity was triumphing, old industry was evaporating, and those fortunate enough to be among the ascendant were absolutely certain about the direction history was taking.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

AS WITH so much about the Democratic Party today, all this somehow works its way back to the Clintons.

Frank’s assessment of Bill Clinton’s two terms in office in the 1990s is a crucial antidote to the free-flowing Clinton nostalgia of 2016. Frank says that while he was writing the book:

I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for–you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president. Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him– apart from his obvious personal affability, I mean? It proved difficult for my libs…

No one mentioned any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation. His presidency was all about campaign donations, not personal bravery– he rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, for chrissake, and at the end of his time in office, he even appeared to sell a presidential pardon.

Frank concedes a few small positive efforts by Clinton: a small increase in taxes on the rich, a failed attempt at health care reform. But the biggest initiatives Clinton won were things that would have been considered Republican policies of an earlier era: the 1994 crime bill that put the “New Jim Crow” described by Michelle Alexander into overdrive; the destruction of the federal welfare system; free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and various forms of financial deregulation.

Frank notes that Clinton was conducting backdoor negotiations with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a scheme to privatize Social Security. That attempt collapsed during the impeachment battle connected to Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Frank’s crucial point is this. It took a Democrat–one skilled in the double-talk of “feeling the pain” of ordinary people and bolstering those “who work hard and play by the rules”–to push through a wish list of conservative policies that not even Ronald Reagan could win. As Frank writes:

What distinguishes the political order we live under now is a consensus, at least in the political mainstream, on certain economic questions–and what made that consensus happen was the capitulation of the Democrats. Republicans could denounce big government all they wanted, but it took a Democrat to declare that “the era of big government is over” and to make it stick. This was Bill Clinton’s historic achievement. Under his direction, as I wrote back then, the opposition “ceased to oppose.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

MUCH OF what Frank writes will sound very familiar to regular readers of Socialist Worker. But for liberals who might know Frank from his What’s the Matter with Kansas? or The Wrecking Crew, Listen, Liberal might feel like a bucket of cold water. Especially for those who might be “ready for Hillary” in 2016.

For my money, the entire book is worth the price of the chapter “Liberal Gilt,” where Frank skewers the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and, by extension, what he calls the “liberal class’s virtue quest.”

At the center of this chapter is, of course, Hillary Clinton, whose public persona of “doing good” for “women and children” dissolves against a backdrop of her support for ending welfare in the 1990s and pushing poor women in developing countries into debt through “microcredit.”

As Secretary of State, Clinton marketed global entrepreneurship and the endless “war on terror” as crusades on behalf of women. Through “partnering” on these initiatives with the Clinton Foundation or the State Department, the likes of Walmart and Goldman Sachs can win praise for their social consciousness–or what Frank brilliantly describes as their “purchasing liberalism offsets”:

This is modern liberalism in action: an unregulated virtue-exchange in which representatives of one class of humanity ritually forgive the sins of another class, all of it convened and facilitated by a vast army of well-graduated American professionals, their reassuring expertise propped up by bogus social science, while the unfortunate objects of their high and noble compassion sink slowly back into a preindustrial state.

Frank weaves this analysis around an unforgettable eyewitness account of a Clinton Foundation celebration–held on the socialist holiday of International Women’s Day, no less! The event, at midtown Manhattan’s Best Buy (now Playstation) Theater, touted entrepreneurship for women in the global South. The Clintons, Melinda Gates, Hollywood stars, fashion magazine editors and Fortune 500 leaders came together for an afternoon of self-congratulation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

YET FOR all that is spot-on in Frank’s critique of the Democrats, the book’s analysis is flawed on two interrelated points.

First, its theory of the Democrats as a party of educated professionals suffers from what might be called a crude class analysis.

When Marxists argue that the Democrats and Republicans are “capitalist” parties, we don’t mean that a cabal of capitalists acts as their puppet masters from behind the scenes. We mean that through various means–from political contributions to expert advice to control of the media–various capitalist interests assure that the mainstream political parties implement policies that allow the capitalist system to thrive and reproduce itself.

Scholars such as Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers have documented why we should understand shifts in the mainstream capitalist parties as shifts in blocs of capital rather than shifts in voting bases. Ferguson has even demonstrated how Obama’s support from Silicon Valley is linked to the administration’s care and nurturance of the surveillance state.

Frank doesn’t cite any of this analysis. Thus, in arguing that the Democrats’ current embrace of Silicon Valley neoliberalism is somehow a product of “well-graduated” Democrats’ fascination with “complexity,” “innovation” and “disruptive” app-driven services like Uber and AirBnB, Frank misses the close integration of the Democratic Party with the capitalist class.

The Democrats may have been capitalism’s B-Team over the last generation, but they’re not the Washington Generals, forever bested by the Harlem Globetrotters.

Second, understanding the Democrats as a party of Ivy League professionals–and not as one of the two big business parties in the U.S.–implies that it can be reclaimed as the “party of the people” or the party of the “working class,” as Frank believes it was in its New Deal heyday.

This characterization forgets that, in many ways, the Democrats were capitalism’s A-Team during that period. And if the Trumpization of the Republicans continues, the Democrats may end up as the first-stringers again. The 2016 Clinton campaign certainly hopes so.

Listen, Liberal is a great read for this election season. While Frank concludes that the state of affairs that brought us to Clinton against Trump “cannot go on,” he’s not sure where to go. Charting that course is a challenge the left faces today.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/04/your-party-is-the-neo-kind-of-liberal

Bill Clinton’s Five Major Achievements Were Longstanding GOP Objectives

Sunday, 15 May 2016 00:00

Truthout | Interview with Thomas Frank: 

Bill Clinton, standing between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, taking the oath of office of President of the United States on January 20, 1993. Clinton ran for president as a champion of the working class, but largely abandoned their economic interests while in office – preferring Wall Street to Main Street -- beginning with his signing of NAFTA.

Bill Clinton, standing between Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, taking the oath of office of president of the United States on January 20, 1993. Clinton ran for president as a champion of the working class, but largely abandoned their economic interests while in office – preferring Wall Street to Main Street — beginning with his signing of NAFTA. (Photo: White House)

What is the core philosophy of today’s Democratic Party and does it serve anyone’s interests other than a wealthy elite? Thomas Frank lays bare Democrats’ abandonment of their purported values — and the role this has played in entrenching economic inequality — in his sardonic new book, Listen, Liberal. Order your copy by making a donation to Truthout today!

Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal, discusses the Hillary Doctrine’s basis in neoliberalism, how the Democratic Party stopped governing on behalf of the working class and how President Bill Clinton’s major achievements actually enacted conservative goals, and ultimately hurt working people.

Mark Karlin: The innovation class, the creative class, the wealthy class, the professional class with Ivy League degrees: How did President Obama become the avatar for believing these groups should be the decision makers in government?

Thomas Frank: Obama thinks such people should be in charge because they came up through the same system as him. “Because he himself was a product of the great American postwar meritocracy,” his biographer Jonathan Alter writes, “he could never fully escape seeing the world from the status ladder he had ascended.”

Most of our other Democratic leaders (the Clintons, for example) came up the same way and believe the same thing. Indeed, what Alter describes is standard-issue stuff for Democrats these days. The Democrats are a class party in the fullest sense of the phrase, and the class whose perspective they reflect and whose interests they serve is the highly educated, white-collar professional class. Theirs is a liberalism of the rich.

Can you describe a little about what you call “The Hillary Doctrine,” including how microlending is a good example of her belief in opening doors of entrepreneurship to solve the world’s economic problems?

The Hillary Doctrine was Clinton’s understanding of American national interest when she served as Obama’s secretary of state. The idea was that the US would henceforth be the world’s defender of women and girls. Hillary didn’t mean this in a general sense, however. The kind of women we were committing ourselves to specifically were female entrepreneurs.

The source of this notion of liberation through female entrepreneurship is the microlending movement, in which Hillary has been an enthusiastic participant for many decades. It arose as part of neoliberalism in the 1990s: The IMF [International Monetary Fund] and World Bank would “structurally reform” a country’s economy, and to help out with the human dislocation that resulted, they would give microloans to small entrepreneurs, who were encouraged to start tiny businesses like gardening or handicrafts. Over the years, the microlending movement accreted all these details: The entrepreneurs had to be women. They had to be hooked up to a bank. They had to have a Western mentor. They had to have smartphones. And so on.

You can see the appeal of this movement: It’s telling you that the solution to poverty is not unions or government or anything like that, but for everyone to work hard and start their own businesses — and, incidentally, to extend the reach of Western financial institutions to every village on the planet. A pure win-win. Everyone feels good. Everyone feels virtuous.

Except for the people who live in those countries, of course, because they know it doesn’t work. You don’t build a country’s economy by having everyone buy a goat and sell milk to one another. All these people have to show for this strategy is debt. Some empowerment.

I was captivated by your description of Hillary Clinton being surrounded by a “microclimate of virtue.” Can you describe what you mean by that and how it was represented in your section, “No Ceilings,” that included Melinda Gates and a panel to show how much women in power “cared” for poor women? I love your sardonic description, “the presenters called out to one another in tones of gracious supportiveness and flattery so sweet it bordered on idolatry.”

Every biography of Hillary Clinton talks about her goodness, her high-mindedness, her rock-solid dedication to principle. Reading those books, I couldn’t imagine what they meant, since Hillary is as much of a shape-shifter and a compromiser as any other politician.

When I saw her in person, however, it all made sense. It was at a Clinton Foundation event, as you mention. Everyone took their turn on the stage, praising everyone else, in the highest and most gracious forms you can imagine. There was an almost intoxicating sense in the room of the goodness and virtue of everyone present, with Hillary herself anchoring the swirl. It must be hard for someone who wasn’t there to believe, but these people seemed to regard her with an idealism that was almost cult-like.

The exaggeration of it all showed me that this sense of virtue is not only central to Hillary Clinton’s appeal, but to liberalism generally. This is a movement that has done tremendous harm to minorities and working people over the last few decades, and yet liberals have such an elevated sense of what fine people they are. It is a precious self-image.

You trace the modern abandonment of working men and women by the Democrats to a book by Fred Dutton in 1971. Can you explain the tome and its implications?

Dutton was a high-ranking Democratic Party official who later became a prominent Washington lobbyist. Among other things, he served on the McGovern Commission, which worked to reorient the Democratic Party away from labor and working people. Dutton’s book was called Changing Sources of Power, and it was sort of an explanation of why the McGovern Commission did what it did. Basically, Dutton was one of those establishment people who were simply bowled over by the sheer righteousness of the youth movements of the 1960s — something I also found a lot of in the advertising industry in my first book, The Conquest of Cool. The kids were so wise and so profound, Dutton thought. They had brought politics to a whole new philosophical level. And, meanwhile, as everyone could see, working people were so backward and so ugly, supporting the Vietnam War and all that stuff. Of course you wanted to ditch one group and embrace the other.

Given what was going on back then, it’s easy to understand why Dutton felt as he did. He wasn’t totally wrong about blue-collar workers and the Vietnam War, for instance. But turning your back on the concerns of working-class organizations for whatever reason meant turning your back on their issues, with consequences that are all too clear today.

You argue the abandonment of labor by the Democrats came to full fruition in the two administrations of Bill Clinton? How did Clinton who came from a working-class upbringing eventually betray the workers of the United States?

First of all, I’m not so sure about his background. It is true that he came from a very poor state, and that his family struggled, but Clinton’s biographers always emphasize that he wasn’t really of the working class: He always drove a new Buick, etc.

Clinton never had a really great relationship with workers’ organizations, but the worst thing Clinton he did to them was NAFTA. There were many trade agreements, of course, but NAFTA was the one that mattered, both because it was the first one and because labor put everything into stopping it. Indeed labor had stopped it when George H. W. Bush tried to get it through Congress. Clinton got it done, however, with a little muscle and a vast fog of preposterous claims about how NAFTA would increase exports and manufacturing employment.

His admirers saw NAFTA as his “finest hour,” because he had stood up to a traditional Democratic constituency. What an achievement. NAFTA handed employers all over America the ultimate weapon against workers: They could now credibly threaten to pick up and leave at the slightest show of worker backbone — and they make such threats all the time now.

How did the Clinton administration become a surrogate of Wall Street, resulting in the far-reaching repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act?

In 1992, Clinton ran as a populist, deploring income inequality, but that was just an act. As president he seems immediately to have decided to cast his fortunes — and those of his party — with Wall Street. Bank deregulation was a persistent policy of his from the very beginning — he signed the Riegle-Neal Act in 1994, for example, and the Mexican bailout (a big favor to Wall Street) came shortly thereafter. Along the way, he helped bail out a too-big-to-fail hedge fund, he twice appointed Alan Greenspan to run the Federal Reserve and he ensured that certain derivative securities would not have any kind of federal supervision at all.

At the time, Clinton’s admirers thought this record was something to boast about. He had brought his party out of the Rooseveltian dark ages and had embraced modernity, etc.

Why did he do it? My explanation is simple class identification. Clinton’s real class story has to do with his career in college and graduate school, where he became a star of the rising professional cohort. People with this kind of background saw (and still see) Wall Street as a part of the enlightened world, a part of the world inhabited by people just like them. They’re so smart! Plucking wealth from thin air!

This is a little off message regarding the book, but can you speculate why the Republicans were so obsessed with removing Clinton from office when he was fulfilling so much of the GOP agenda, including negotiating with Newt Gingrich about cutting Medicare and Social Security?

“Fulfilling so much of the GOP agenda”: That is a point worth reiterating. Clinton had five major achievements as president: NAFTA, the Crime Bill of 1994, welfare reform, the deregulation of banks and telecoms, and the balanced budget. All of them — every single one — were longstanding Republican objectives. His smaller achievements were more traditionally Democratic (he raised the earned-income tax credit and the minimum wage), but his big accomplishments all enacted conservative wishes, and then all of them ended in disaster.

So why did the right try so hard to get rid of him? For one thing, because they always do that. They never suspend the war or stop pushing rightward. There is no point at which they say, “OK, we’ve won enough.” For another, because Gingrich couldn’t control the rank and file, a problem that persists to this day.

The final conservative consequence of the impeachment, although this one was surely not intended: impeaching Clinton made him a martyr and hence a hero to Democrats. It secured his family’s and his faction’s grip on the Democratic Party apparently forever.

You write in your last chapter: “And every two years, they [the Democrats] simply assume that being non-Republican is sufficient to rally the voters of the nation to their standard.” That sure sounds to me a bit like Hillary Clinton’s basic pitch (paraphrased): “I’m not going to get a lot done because that’s reality, but I’ll be sitting in the Oval Office instead of that demagogue Trump. So vote for me.” Any resonance there?

That is exactly how I meant it, although of course I couldn’t see that Trump was going to be the GOP nominee when I was writing the book.

Is the Acela Express the main transportation route between lawmakers, regulators, lobbyists and financiers?

The Acela runs between Washington and New York just a little bit faster than the ordinary Amtrak train. It costs much, much more, however. Because once you’re on that Acela train, you’re instantly in the secured precincts of the tidy and prosperous professional class. All these nicely dressed people typing away on their keyboards. People looking over spreadsheets. People reading management books and talking management talk. People flattering each other. People shushing each other in the quiet car. Shushing each other so vehemently I once saw a quiet car dispute almost turn into a fistfight. It is literally the express train of the class war. Every sort of narcissism and upper-class social pathology is on full display.

A few weeks ago on the Acela train, I sat near a man who seemed to be some sort of Hillary Clinton adviser. He was talking very loudly on his cellphone about her latest TV commercial, about how she was finding her own voice, which sounds banal but which I guess is a good thing to do if you want to be president of the United States.

When you end with a rather pessimistic notion that the betrayal of the Democrats in power will not easily change, you state “that the problem is us.” Who are you referring to as “us”? Liberals? How does the Bernie Sanders movement that came near to toppling Clinton Inc. fit into your answer?

“The problem is us” in the sense that liberalism is dominated by a certain class outlook and that I am part of that class. I am calling on other members of that class to look in the mirror and understand who they are — that they are just as much products of their economic position as are the blue-collar workers they so hate. In particular, I am calling on them to understand that they aren’t the fine and virtuous people they believe they are. That it is because of them that inequality is out of control, that Wall Street is wrecking the world, that middle-class America is falling apart. And that they have an obligation to do something about it.

I like to think that Bernie is saying the same thing, in his own way.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Mark Karlin is the editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout. He served as editor and publisher of BuzzFlash for 10 years before joining Truthout in 2010. BuzzFlash has won four Project Censored Awards. Karlin writes a commentary five days a week for BuzzFlash, as well as articles (ranging from the failed “war on drugs” to reviews relating to political art) for Truthout. He also interviews authors and filmmakers whose works are featured in Truthout’s Progressive Picks of the Week. Before linking with Truthout, Karlin conducted interviews with cultural figures, political progressives and innovative advocates on a weekly basis for 10 years. He authored many columns about the lies propagated to launch the Iraq War.

 

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/36035-thomas-frank-bill-clinton-s-five-major-achievements-were-longstanding-gop-objectives

Thomas Frank’s new book is “thought-provoking — and guilt-inducing.”

From Bill Moyers — A Recommendation

Listen Liberal book cover

You will not have failed to notice that we think highly of Thomas Frank’s new book, Listen Liberal. But if you need another nudge to read it, or want further testimony as to its importance, here it is — in this message from an old friend and colleague of mine, Ervin Duggan. We served together in the Johnson White House 50 years ago. Ervin had a hand in several domestic policy initiatives that have stood the test of time, including the creation of public broadcasting and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.

While in time I descended into the more vulgar pursuits of journalism, Ervin, who had started as a reporter, wised up and stuck with more noble endeavors, serving as a member of the Federal Communications Commission, president of PBS and then president of the influential Society of the Four Arts in Florida.

Yet it turns out that while our paths diverged, our reading interests did not. So I was pleased the other day to receive from him this salute to Thomas Frank’s newest, as every bit as important as his earlier What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Take heed:

If you haven’t read Thomas Frank’s new book, read it now. It is serious, searingly witty, passionate, thoughtful and fiendishly well-written.

 Frank’s thesis is that today’s Democratic “liberalism” is nothing like that of FDR, HST, or LBJ. As Frank sees it, their crusade for “Molly and the babies” (as LBJ called his working-class constituents) has been supplanted by a crusade — by Obama, by the Clintons, by Rahm Emanuel, by Larry Summers, by Deval Patrick — to advance the interests of well-off, well-educated, well-credentialed elites who sport Ivy League degrees, high net worths and vacation houses on Martha’s Vineyard. Today’s Democratic Party, Frank says, warmly embraces cultural issues like gay marriage and abortion rights while shying away from traditional pocketbook issues like income inequality. In doing so, he says, today’s leading Democrats abandon the working class voters who once were the party’s core constituents.

 Frank’s book is not perfect. He sounds, at times, when he decries recent global trade agreements, like an old-time, tariff-loving protectionist. He sounds, when he rails against modern businesses like Amazon and Uber, a bit Canute-like. What would he have us do, I wonder: stop the digital revolution in its tracks?

 And yet. Even when Frank seems almost to be deploring modernity itself (he never tires of mocking “innovation” and “innovators”), his arguments are cogent and well-stated; his passion for the forgotten, abandoned workers of Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Fall River is moving and disturbing. This is a thought-provoking — and guilt-inducing — book.

It may seem faint praise to call a book “thought provoking”— but isn’t that what every book should be? Frank’s book is that and more. If enough people read it, Listen, Liberal may stir a rethinking among today’s Democratic believers (and candidates) — a movement away from mindless cliches and blather about the “new economy,” back toward real concern for working (and workless) families: the victims of that new economy. In Frank’s passionate telling, these workers and their children have been casually, cruelly abandoned by the party that once was their defender and champion.

 

 

http://billmoyers.com/story/from-bill-moyers-a-recommendation/

The problem with center-left critiques of neoliberalism

By Martijn Konings On July 22, 2015

Post image for The problem with center-left critiques of neoliberalismThe Polanyian preoccupation with the social limits to the expansion of the market is really just a distraction from our own investment in the status quo.

Image shows Steve Lambert’s art installation Capitalism works for me!

It is now sometimes hard to remember — and for the generation that is now in college and wasn’t necessarily reading the opinion pages at the time, it may seem nothing short of perverse — but there was a period following the onset of the crisis when progressive commentary on economic and financial life was pervaded by intense optimism about the future. As overleveraged financial structures crumbled, progressive intelligentsia rang the death knell for the neoliberal principles that were so obviously responsible for the problems.

At the height of the crisis in September 2008, the excitement about the ‘return of the state’ was palpable. That the bailouts had some morally problematic aspects did of course not go unnoticed, but those were nonetheless seen as secondary in importance to the basic lesson they taught: that the capitalist economy does not regulate itself and needs the state. The future seemed to belong to public regulation and Keynesian intervention.

In the social sciences, such reasoning has become closely associated with the revival of the work of Karl Polanyi. The key concept here is that of the ‘double movement,’ which sees history as evolving in cycles: periodic ‘disembedding’ movements, when the speculative and individualizing logic of the market becomes unmoored from its social and political foundations, will be followed by ‘re-embedding’ movements, when society regroups and once again subordinates markets to the public good.

This model sees financial crises as powerful reminders of the inability of markets to regulate themselves, and accordingly takes them as political turning-points. The influence of this model of capitalist development has been significant throughout the neoliberal era, but has grown dramatically since the financial crisis, with some of the most prominent public intellectuals embracing it. Indeed, anyone who has misgivings about the role of markets and financial institutions in contemporary life and consults the social science literature for some deeper insight will soon encounter the name of Karl Polanyi.

The schema of the double movement has turned out to be just about the poorest guide to the post-crisis development of capitalism that we could have had.

Neoliberalism recharged

Instead of a break with the politics of financial expansion and hands-off regulation, what we got was a neoliberalism recharged. Not only have left-wing progressive reform agendas faltered almost everywhere, the past years have in fact seen a dramatic turn to austerity. In order to make sense of this state of affairs, progressive intellectuals have turned to the idea of regulatory or cognitive capture: it is the iron-fisted hold of financial elites on regulatory institutions and the mindsets of policymakers that has prevented the re-embedding movement from materializing.

But of course the disproportionate influence of elites on public policy is hardly a new phenomenon and is in many ways more symptom than cause. What needs explaining is precisely how the privileges of the financial sector have survived amidst widespread concerns about its legitimacy and intense hostility towards bankers. We are currently seeing the bizarre emergence of an academic growth sector devoted to explaining the failure of social reality to conform itself to social scientists’ fantasies of a re-embedding movement — a curious imitation of the financial sector’s own ability to profit from failure.

These kinds of post-crisis debates have been unable to come to terms with the considerable popular appeal and democratic legitimacy of neoliberalism. This has been most visible in the United States, where the Tea Party movement played a crucial role in bringing austerity to the top of the political agenda.

The movement originated in the widespread concern that the American government had become heavily involved in the picking of economic winners, and its central aim is to restore an America founded on republican values, where the undeserving were not pampered with bailouts. This phenomenon of ‘neoliberal populism’ manifests something that progressive commentators have profound difficulty relating to: the moral force of the orthodox image of the market and the ethical appeal of austerity as a means of purifying capitalist institutions.

The disembedding metaphor underlines this disconnect: it sets far too much store by the claims of the ‘dismal science’ as a guide to actually existing capitalism and places far too much emphasis on the morally corrosive aspects of the market.

Organizing our own oppression

The issue here isn’t just of academic interest: the growing stature of Polanyi’s work among social scientists reflects the more general tendency among progressive intellectuals to adopt as serious explanation what is little more than journalistic opinionating and left-of-center moralizing. In keeping with this style of political commentary, progressive commentators have gone out of their way to downplay the significance of neoliberal populism, dismissing it as irrational sentiment manufactured and manipulated by conservative elites.

More generally, to the extent that progressive intellectuals have engaged with the ethical charge of neoliberal capitalism, they have tended to focus on its paradoxical alliance with (neo)conservatism and the religious right. In this interpretation, private enrichment has been legitimated through appeals to conservative values, and large sections of the American public have been curiously unable to see through this hypocrisy. At the limit, this gives rise to the kind of despair at the people’s irrationality that is expressed in the title of Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas?

To understand the attachment to neoliberalism as a kind of cognitive impairment is hardly a promising starting point for engaging it in a serious way. As a result, the left’s debate on austerity has remained superficial, revolving around the notion that it represents nothing but an ideological program imposed on populations from above and remaining largely silent on the question of how austerity discourses have been able to gain such traction in democratic polities.

The democratic character of our political systems is of course compromised in myriad ways, but — at least in a Western context — neoliberalism does not operate in a way that is primarily authoritarian. Its distinctive strength is its ability to lure us into organizing our own oppression.

Framed in psychological terms, progressive perspectives on austerity ‘externalize’ the problem, attributing problems to the nefarious machinations of scheming elites in order to disavow our own connection to it. The result is a critique of austerity that is moralistic, depicting it as a wrong policy or cognitive mistake without meaningful social or psychological roots.

That the capture concept is a neoliberal invention — it was pioneered by George Stigler, a founding member of the Mont Pelerin society — should alert us to a blind spot in the progressive critique of neoliberal capitalism. The neoliberal project is itself already fundamentally a critique of the ways in which public institutions have been captured by special interests. It looks to austerity as a means to restore an authentic republican ethos, a self-reliance that is not cynically utilitarian but responsible and accountable, capable of serving as the backbone of political community.

And here it is precisely the progressive-liberal character that is seen as the principal obstacle: it features as the embodiment of moral corruption, as elitist, condescending do-goodery that facilitates lazy, hedonistic dependency. The progressive critique of neoliberalism, then, operates somewhat unreflexively in the slipstream of the neoliberal assault on progressivism.

The power of austerity

Of course, the neoliberal management of austerity has often been a highly technocratic and depoliticized affair. But what needs explaining is precisely how democratic publics have come to embrace such self-limitation. Similarly, it is true that only the US has experienced a full-fledged movement of neoliberal populism. But the turn to austerity policies in the post-crisis Eurozone could never have been effective had it not been for the remarkable speed with which the focus of at least Western European public opinion was redirected from almost visceral disgust with financial elites to a general acceptance of key tenets of austerity policy — that budgets need balancing and debts need to be paid.

Explaining the power of austerity therefore requires an ability to critically penetrate an economic imaginary that enjoys considerable ethical appeal and democratic traction. The Polanyian preoccupation with the idea that there exist inherent social and political limits to the expansion of market logics, and its reliance on conspiratorial explanations for why those limits are not being enforced, are really just distractions from the real question of why we are so invested in the logic of neoliberal capitalism.

It is reflective of the malaise of present-day progressivism that it can only understand formulations such as the latter as encouraging a retreat from political action. In practice, it is of course precisely the advocacy of policy change that is associated with a dismissive attitude towards the spate of critical energies that have flourished since the crisis, counseling cautious accommodation to austerity politics no matter how minute and short-lived the discounts on offer.

That ethos serves to demobilize rather than energize resistance, and a meaningful critical engagement of neoliberal capitalism is premised on a break with a distinctly progressive-liberal way of thinking about economic life that is epitomized by the prominence of Polanyi’s ideas.

Martijn Konings teaches at the University of Sydney and is the author of The Emotional Logic of Capitalism: What Progressives Have Missed (2015).

 

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/07/polanyi-progressive-critique-neoliberalism-crisis/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Cornel West talks Ferguson, Hillary, MSNBC — and unloads on the failed promise of Barack Obama

Cornel West: “He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency”

Cornel West: "He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency"
Cornel West (Credit: Albert H. Teich via Shutterstock)

Cornel West is a professor at Union Theological Seminary and one of my favorite public intellectuals, a man who deals in penetrating analyses of current events, expressed in a pithy and highly quotable way.

I first met him nearly six years ago, while the financial crisis and the presidential election were both under way, and I was much impressed by what he had to say. I got back in touch with him last week, to see how he assesses the nation’s progress since then.

The conversation ranged from Washington, D.C., to Ferguson, Missouri, and although the picture of the nation was sometimes bleak, our talk ended on a surprising note.

Last time we talked it was almost six years ago. It was a panel discussion The New Yorker magazine had set up, it was in the fall of 2008, so it was while the financial crisis was happening, while it was actually in progress. The economy was crumbling and everybody was panicking. I remember you  speaking about the financial crisis in a way that I thought made sense. There was a lot of confusion at the time. People didn’t know where to turn or what was going on. 

I also remember, and this is just me I’m talking about, being impressed by Barack Obama who was running for president at the time. I don’t know if you and I talked about him on that occasion. But at the time, I sometimes thought that he looked like he had what this country needed.

So that’s my first question, it’s a lot of ground to cover but how do you feel things have worked out since then, both with the economy and with this president? That was a huge turning point, that moment in 2008, and my own feeling is that we didn’t turn.

No, the thing is he posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair. And that’s a very sad moment in the history of the nation because we are—we’re an empire in decline. Our culture is in increasing decay. Our school systems are in deep trouble. Our political system is dysfunctional. Our leaders are more and more bought off with legalized bribery and normalized corruption in Congress and too much of our civil life. You would think that we needed somebody—a Lincoln-like figure who could revive some democratic spirit and democratic possibility.



That’s exactly what everyone was saying at the time.

That’s right. That’s true. It was like, “We finally got somebody who can help us turn the corner.” And he posed as if he was a kind of Lincoln.

Yeah. That’s what everyone was saying.

And we ended up with a brown-faced Clinton. Another opportunist. Another neoliberal opportunist. It’s like, “Oh, no, don’t tell me that!” I tell you this, because I got hit hard years ago, but everywhere I go now, it’s “Brother West, I see what you were saying. Brother West, you were right. Your language was harsh and it was difficult to take, but you turned out to be absolutely right.” And, of course with Ferguson, you get it reconfirmed even among the people within his own circle now, you see. It’s a sad thing. It’s like you’re looking for John Coltrane and you get Kenny G in brown skin.

When you say you got hit hard, are you talking about the personal confrontation you had with him?

I’m just thinking about the vicious attacks of the Obama cheerleaders.

The personal confrontation you had with him is kind of famous. He got angry at you because you were saying he wasn’t progressive enough.

I just looked at him like “C’mon, man. Let the facts speak for themselves. I’m not into this rhetorical exchange.”

Is there anybody who thinks he’s progressive enough today?

Nobody I know. Not even among the progressive liberals. Nobody I know. Part of this, as you can imagine, is that early on there was a strong private-public distinction. People would come to me and say privately, “We see what you’re saying. We think you’re too harsh in how you say it but we agree very much with what you’re saying in private.” In public, no comment. Now, more and more of it spills over in public.

There’s a lot of disillusionment now. My liberal friends included. The phrase that I have heard from more than one person in the last year is they feel like they got played.

That’s true. That’s exactly right. What I hear is that, “He pimped us.” I heard that a zillion times. “He pimped us, brother West.” That’s another way of saying “we got played.”

You remember that enthusiasm in 2008. I’m from Kansas City. He came and spoke in Kansas City and 75,000 people came to see him.

Oh yeah. Well we know there were moments in Portland, Oregon, there were moments in Seattle. He had the country in the palm of his hand in terms of progressive possibilities.

What on earth ails the man? Why can’t he fight the Republicans? Why does he need to seek a grand bargain?

I think Obama, his modus operandi going all the way back to when he was head of the [Harvard] Law Review, first editor of the Law Review and didn’t have a piece in the Law Review. He was chosen because he always occupied the middle ground. He doesn’t realize that a great leader, a statesperson, doesn’t just occupy middle ground. They occupy higher ground or the moral ground or even sometimes the holy ground. But the middle ground is not the place to go if you’re going to show courage and vision. And I think that’s his modus operandi. He always moves to the middle ground. It turned out that historically, this was not a moment for a middle-ground politician. We needed a high-ground statesperson and it’s clear now he’s not the one.

And so what did he do? Every time you’re headed toward middle ground what do you do? You go straight to the establishment and reassure them that you’re not too radical, and try to convince them that you are very much one of them so you end up with a John Brennan, architect of torture [as CIA Director]. Torturers go free but they’re real patriots so we can let them go free. The rule of law doesn’t mean anything.

The rule of law, oh my God. There’s one law for us and another law if you work on Wall Street.

That’s exactly right. Even with [Attorney General] Eric Holder. Eric Holder won’t touch the Wall Street executives; they’re his friends. He might charge them some money. They want to celebrate. This money is just a tax write-off for these people. There’s no accountability. No answerability. No responsibility that these people have to take at all. The same is true with the Robert Rubin crowd. Obama comes in, he’s got all this populist rhetoric which is wonderful, progressive populist rhetoric which we needed badly. What does he do, goes straight to the Robert Rubin crowd and here comes Larry Summers, here comes Tim Geithner, we can go on and on and on, and he allows them to run things. You see it in the Suskind book, The Confidence Men. These guys are running things, and these are neoliberal, deregulating free marketeers—and poverty is not even an afterthought for them.

They’re the same ones who screwed it up before.

Absolutely.

That was the worst moment [when he brought in the Rubin protégés].

We tried to point that out as soon as he became part of the Rubin stable, part of the Rubin group, and people didn’t want to hear it for the most part. They didn’t want to hear it.

Now it’s six years later and the search for the Grand Bargain has been fruitless. Why does he persist? I shouldn’t be asking you to psychologize him…

I think part of it is just temperament. That his success has been predicated on finding that middle ground. “We’re not black. We’re not white. We’re not rich. We’re not poor. There’s no classes in America. We are all Americans. We’re the American family.” He invoked the American family last week. It’s a lie, brother. You’ve got to be able to tell the truth to the American people. We’re not a family. We’re a people. We’re a nation. And a nation always has divisions. You have to be able to speak to those divisions in such a way that, like FDR, like Lincoln, you’re able to somehow pull out the best of who we are, given the divisions. You don’t try to act as if we have no divisions and we’re just an American family, with the poor getting treated in disgraceful ways and the rich walking off sipping tea, with no accountability at all, and your foreign policy is running amok with Israelis committing war crimes against precious Palestinians and you won’t say a mumbling word about the Palestinian children. What is history going to say about you? Counterfeit! That’s what they’ll say, counterfeit. Not the real thing.

Let’s talk about Ferguson. All I know about it is what I’ve been reading in the newspapers; I haven’t been out there. But I feel like there’s a lot more going on there than this one tragic killing.

Oh, absolutely. I mean, one, we know that this is a systemic thing. This thing has been going on—we can hardly get a word out of the administration in terms of the arbitrary police power. I’ll give you a good example: Carl Dix and I, three years ago, we went to jail over stop and frisk. We had a week-long trial and we were convicted, we were guilty. While the trial was going on, President Obama came into New York and said two things: He said that Michael Bloomberg was a terrific mayor even though he had stopped and frisked over four and a half million since 2002. Then he went onto say that Ed Koch was one of the greatest mayors in the last 50 years. This is right at a time when we’re dealing with stop and frisk, arbitrary police power, and Bloomberg is extending stop and frisk and proud of it. At least Bloomberg is honest about it. Bill De Blasio is just trying to walk a tightrope in this regard. At least Bloomberg was honest about it. He was glad that stop and frisk was in place. When we went to jail he said, “Y’all are wrong. If stop and frisk is stopped, then crime is going to go up…”

I just give you that as an example in terms of arbitrary police power because in Ferguson we’re talking about arbitrary police power, and this particular instance of it has been going on for a long time. The Obama administration has been silent. Completely silent. All of a sudden now, you get this uprising and what is the response? Well, as we know, you send out a statement on the death of brother Robin Williams before you sent out a statement on brother Michael Brown. The family asked for an autopsy at the Federal level, they hold back, so they [the family] have to go and get their own autopsy, and then the federal government finally responds. [Obama] sends Eric, Eric’s on the way out. Eric Holder’s going to be gone by December.

Oh, is he?

Yeah, he’s already said, this is it. He’s concerned about his legacy as if he’s somehow been swinging for black folk ever since he’s been in there. That’s a lie. He’s been silent, too. He’s been relatively silent. He’s made a couple of gestures in regards to the New Jim Crow and the prison-industrial complex, but that’s just lately, on his way out. He was there for six years and didn’t do nothing. See what I mean?

I see exactly what you mean, but I look at the pictures at Ferguson and it looks like it could be anywhere in America, you know.

Absolutely. It looks like it could be New York, Chicago, Atlanta, L.A. It’s like they’re lucky that it hasn’t hit New York, Chicago, L.A. yet, you know.

When they rolled out the militarized police, it frightened people. Something is going on here. It’s not breaking down the way it usually does. People are reacting to this in a different way.

That’s true. It’s a great moment, but let me tell you this though. Because what happens is you got Eric Holder going in trying to create the calm. But you also got Al Sharpton. And when you say the name Al Sharpton, the word integrity does not come to mind. So you got low-quality black leadership. Al Sharpton is who? He’s a cheerleader for Obama.

I haven’t followed him for years; I didn’t know that.

He meets with the president regularly.

I did not know that.

On his show on MSNBC…

I knew he had a show, I just…I guess I don’t watch it enough.

You gotta check that out, brother.

That’s the problem with me, I don’t watch enough TV.

It’s probably good for your soul but you still have to be informed about how decadent things are out here. But, no: MSNBC, state press, it’s all Obama propaganda, and Sharpton is the worst. Sharpton said explicitly, I will never say a critical word about the president under any condition. That’s why he can’t stand what I’m saying. He can’t stand what I do because, for him, it’s an act of racial traitorship to be critical of the president. There’s no prophetic integrity in his leadership.

I understand that. I think a lot of people feel that way. Not just in a racial sense but because Obama’s a Democrat. People feel that way in a partisan sense.

I think that’s true too. You have had some Democrats who’ve had some criticisms of the president. You’ve got some senator that has been critical about his violation of civil liberties and so forth, and rightly so. But Sharpton, and I mention Sharpton because Sharpton is the major black leader who is called on to deal with arbitrary police power. So, Trayvon Martin, what did he do? You got all this black rage down there calling for justice. Has there been justice for Trayvon Martin? Has the Department of Justice done anything for the Trayvon Martin case? None whatsoever. The same is true now with Ferguson. They call Sharpton down. He poses, he postures like he’s so radical. But he is a cheerleader for the Obama administration which means, he’s going to do what he can to filter that rage in neoliberal forms, rather than for truth and justice.

One last thing, where are we going from here? What comes next?

I think a post-Obama America is an America in post-traumatic depression. Because the levels of disillusionment are so deep. Thank God for the new wave of young and prophetic leadership, as with Rev. William Barber, Philip Agnew, and others. But look who’s around the presidential corner. Oh my God, here comes another neo-liberal opportunist par excellence. Hillary herself is coming around the corner. It’s much worse. And you say, “My God, we are an empire in decline.” A culture in decay with a political system that’s dysfunctional, youth who are yearning for something better but our system doesn’t provide them democratic venues, and so all we have are just voices in the wilderness and certain truth-tellers just trying to keep alive some memories of when we had some serious, serious movements and leaders.

One last thought, I was talking to a friend recently and we were saying, if things go the way they look like they’re going to go and Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee and then wins a second term, the next time there’ll be a chance for a liberal, progressive president is 2024.

It’d be about over then, brother. I think at that point—Hillary Clinton is an extension of Obama’s Wall Street presidency, drone presidency, national surveillance, national security presidency. She’d be more hawkish than he is, and yet she’s got that strange smile that somehow titillates liberals and neo-liberals and scares Republicans. But at that point it’s even too hard to contemplate.

I know, I always like to leave things on a pessimistic note. I’m sorry. It’s just my nature.

It’s not pessimistic, brother, because this is the blues. We are blues people. The blues aren’t pessimistic. We’re prisoners of hope but we tell the truth and the truth is dark. That’s different.

 

Thomas Frank Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include “What’s The Matter With Kansas,” “Pity the Billionaire” and “One Market Under God.” He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/24/cornel_west_he_posed_as_a_progressive_and_turned_out_to_be_counterfeit_we_ended_up_with_a_wall_street_presidency_a_drone_presidency/?source=newsletter