Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year: Down With Fuzzy Liberalism

Here in Marin County, California we are surrounded by affluent liberals who can't see the political forest for the trees. A case in point is John H. Howard, a self-described "retired international banker" whose New Year's Day editorial in the Marin Voice, "Occupy puts focus on disparities," is a classic of fuzzy liberal analysis and "we're all responsible" psychologizing.

Howard defines our central problem as income "disparity" between the 1% and the 99%, not the one percent's class power to make the rest of us work for them and vote for their ideas. On this crucial point, Howard assumes "inequalities" are the result of mismanagement, rather than systemic features of class hierarchy and centralized power.

Although the lopsided maldistribution of wealth has rarely, if ever, been worse than it is right now, the problem is not really income "disparity" but private control of social wealth, which is illegitimate in principle. For the relationship between plundering bankers and the rest of us is parasitic, not unequal, and we had best get that clear right from the start. Would we say that a fungus and the blighted potato on which it grows have an unequal relationship? Or does common sense compel us to conclude that the fungus simply prevents the potato from being healthy at all? Logic favors the latter conclusion, but liberals love to call for "balance" between insanity and reason, as though there could be such.

Here are more examples of fuzzy thinking from Howard's column.

1. More government oversight, not less, might have prevented the Great Recession.

But government financed by Wall Street has no interest in reigning in private capital, which will destroy any politician reckless enough to challenge it. The point is that speculation simply cannot be brought under control when finance capital owns the government and orchestrates capital flight from any region of the world that shows the slightest sign of populist revolt. Private control over public resources must be directly challenged and overcome, not fine-tuned with regulations that are routinely re-written or ignored when profit is at stake.

2. "I am not among the 1 percent . . . [but]I share the good fortune that has permitted the extreme wealth enjoyed by the 1 percent: High expectations from our parents, a solid education, and coming of age when employment prospects were favorable, a functioning democracy — the result is a fixed income from Social Security and two modest pensions, no debt, adequate government medical insurance, and a nice nest egg that allows a comfortable life style."

Old age pensions, the ideal of full-employment, universal education, and democratic politics are not gifts from capitalism of a more benign era, but rather, are the product of bitter class warfare over many generations, in which working people were routinely blacklisted, beaten, trampled, jailed, and killed by capital, in hopes that such social democratic features of modern life would never come to exist. Now that they do exist, liberals want to forget the bloody history that bequeathed them to us. But delusions of a benign capitalism can only lead us astray.

Social Security, for one, did not come from parental expectations, good education, better economic times, or the established political system. It is a watered down version of socialism's call for a guaranteed income for all. It came into being because of massive popular upheaval in protest against capitalism. FDR used popular indignation at capitalist exploitation to political advantage, but he remained steadfast in saying that he had saved capitalism for the wealthy few who dominated it (and who loathed him for helping usher in social democratic protections that kept the system from collapsing).

And just why were employment prospects "more favorable" a few decades ago? Wasn't it to a considerable extent because Washington and Wall Street felt themselves to be in competition with the Communist world for the loyalty of workers, so that wages and benefits were higher, unemployment lower, and unions far more common than they are today? Are liberals now prepared to praise Communism and unionization for their historic role in forging a middle class? If not, why not?

3. I agree with the 99 percent that the conditions that favored the 1 percent and me are no longer available for millions of Americans. . . .The Great Recession is partly to blame, but there are new barriers to success . . . the absolute corruption of politics by big money; the lack of political will to effectively regulate industry, especially finance; the absence of people of good will from the country's power structure; and most critically, our willingness to "let someone else do it" — fight our wars, pay our debts, raise our children, lend a hand down the street.

"Corruption" is something of a misnomer, since capitalism is designed to be "corrupt," i.e., to reward the highest bidder. Under capitalism, therefore, politics is not so much "corrupted" by big money as it is defined by it. Private centers of wealth inevitably translate into political power, and there is hardly a need for a quid pro quo between politician and financial donor for this to be the case. As long as massive accumulations of private wealth are allowed to exist, we will be beholden to them.

The "lack of political will to effectively regulate industry" correlates perfectly with the massive accumulations of capital that reward people handsomely for their moral indifference. And isn't it precisely the point of a profit-maximizing oligarchy to replace moral values with acquisitive values? So why should we expect "people of good will" to ascend to positions of power? In fact, we should expect the opposite.

As for "our willingness to 'let someone else do it' — fight our wars, pay our debts, raise our children, lend a hand down the street," wouldn't it make more sense to give us a moral leg to stand on before asking us to act morally? Is it really morally contemptible for parents to try to have their children sent to Stanford rather than Afghanistan? And is it our fault that corporate America prefers to enslave us with debt rather than give salary increases in a time of rising productivity? Finally, can parents really "raise their children properly," and "lend a hand down the street," when financial necessity routinely requires they be absent from the home 50-60 hours a week, and burdened with unfinished work when they are at home?

In any event, Howard's focus on "success" is the problem, not the solution. We need to think in terms of evolutionary success, not personal financial success. If we continue to define profit as the superordinate goal of social life, to which all else must be subordinated, the human species will soon cease to exist. Worldwide environmental crisis obviously cannot be solved by tinkering with market incentives. We need a new system, a real society, not just the cash-nexus of the marketplace.

4. Medicare is an entirely appropriate entitlement for all citizens, and its cost can be controlled through the some means testing, full implementation of health care reform, and newly vigilant oversight.

If it's truly an entitlement, i.e., something everyone gets, then it shouldn't be means tested. Means testing social insurance is the first step towards its abolition. And Obama's health care "reform" leaves the HMO profiteers in charge, unlike in every other industrial democracy, where they have been removed from medical systems so that human health, not private profit, can come first.

5. "We have lost the sense that we are all in this together, all riding the same planet, and that we as a society succeed or fail by what we do or don't do together."

There is plenty of this sentiment remaining in the U.S., especially in the Occupy movement. But people are beaten, gassed, and arrested for expressing it - at the behest of the 1%.


John H. Howard, "Occupy puts focus on disparities", Marin Voice, January 1, 2012

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