The greatest threat to progress today is neither patriarchy nor imperialism. It is neither the bigotry of the Christian right nor the plutocracy of corporate capitalism. No, the greatest threat to social justice today is liberalism.
Why pick on liberals, you may ask, when there are such devoutly outrageous conservatives to dismiss and ridicule? Aren’t liberals on “our side”? Aren’t their sympathies really for lefty values like peace and egalitarianism? No, I claim—at least that’s not what matters in practice. No one doubts that liberals, with their language of political correctness and devotion to the utopian myth of a “toothless” capitalism, voice concerns about oppression and exploitation. I argued in my pieces on President Obama and MSNBC that this is precisely their utility: while the democratizing language of liberalism persists, it is a doctrine whose revolutionary and even reformist potential has long been sucked dry, like the proverbial milkshake, by the workings of capitalism.
As we have seen, liberal cheerleading for Obama and the “liberal media” effectively stifles the urgency of our need for radical politics. This has long been an essential function of centrism. In the corporate state of advanced capitalism, unconditional support for Democrats and liberal politicians constitutes a de facto betrayal of precisely those liberal values that the political center likes to think separates it, in some dichotomous sense, from the US right wing.
In his Death of the Liberal Class, Chris Hedges claims that “the liberal era,” which took place in the latter part of the 19th century and the early 20th, “was characterized by the growth of mass movements and social reforms that addressed working conditions in factories, the organizing of labor unions, women’s rights, universal education, housing for the poor, public health campaigns, and socialism.” This era ended with the onset of WWI during the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson, a world-historical event which Hedges claims “created mass culture, fostered through the consumer society the cult of the self, led the nation into an era of permanent war, and used fear and mass propaganda to cow citizens and silence independent and radical voices within the liberal class.” Even before what is considered the onset of the first Red Scare after the end of the war, the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 led to the prosecution and repression of hundreds of leftists (including anarchist activist Emma Goldman and labor union leader Eugene Debs) on grounds that their anti-war agitation endangered recruitment and the war effort.
But why was the left’s capital crime its opposition to the nascent military-industrial complex? The Neo-Marxist critical theorist Walter Benjamin wrote in 1936 that (warning: amateur translation) “war, and only war, makes it possible to give mass movements a goal while preserving existing property relations. … Only war makes it possible to mobilize the full industrial capabilities of the present while preserving existing property relations.” As a 20th century critic of capitalism in both its liberal and fascist forms, Benjamin knew that the populism of each system promised their middle-class “national security” as well as freedom from communism.
In the US, our two-party system creates a dynamic illusion of democracy underwritten by the imperialist demands of global capitalism. In poll after poll on the cable news networks, “disapproval” of Congress among Americans corresponds to a tragic but telling belief that the problem with our two-party system is that there is not enough cooperation—that it is too polarized. And while the corporate media spent March 15 obsessing over the election and defending one or another side of the current partisan bickering over energy policy, a bipartisan free trade deal with South Korea (the largest since NAFTA) went into effect. On Fox News? Not a peep. Not even on The Daily Show. The liberal “equal validity of perspectives” is cynically used to dismiss politics outside of the capitalist-imperialist spectrum. Truly, I can think of no more frightening occurrence than “Republicans and Democrats coming together” in support of an issue.
The partisan mythology thus requires a minimum of occasional difference in rhetoric, but an unambiguous unity of purpose on the issues most crucial to our dominance in global capitalism: foreign and economic policy. As always, Fox News provides a telling example of precisely the sort of exception to partisanship that proves the utility of the mythical rule. On the March 4 episode of Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace consulted Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal on Iran and Israel. Israel policy is a useful if extreme case: the supposed rarity of bipartisan consensus makes a right-wing position appear unquestionable and thus requires no illusion of partisanship. Exhibit A: “We’ve been sanctioning Iran seriously, in an effective way, for about the last six months. They keep enriching. … The Prime Minister of Israel said, ‘… When the Iranians get to the point where our military capabilities can’t stop their program, that’s the red line for us.’ And we have a different point militarily than they do, and there’s the conflict. … We should be talking about Iran, not our differences.” Exhibit B: “I think [Obama] needs to give a more specific and muscular content to the formulaic expression that … ‘all options are on the table’—to say that containment is not an option, that a nuclear-armed Iran … is simply unacceptable, because it would destabilize the Middle East. It would create access for terrorists to nuclear armaments, and it would make the Middle East a nuclear tinderbox.” Which soundbite is from the Democrat? If you guessed A, you guessed wrong. If you had to guess, you get my point.
Their Democratic colleague in the Senate, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, recently painted a largely identical, immensely unsatisfying picture at a talk on foreign policy on the UIUC campus, organized by anti-war and pro-Palestinian activists. Clearly, he knew who had invited him and, for once, at least paid lip service to the plight of Palestinians instead of simply parroting Israel’s diversionary warmongering. I approached him after the frustratingly conciliatory Q&A, asking him if his support for a two-state solution and a settlement freeze translated into an acknowledgement that without a settlement freeze, a two-state solution will become more and more of a theoretical impossibility. He answered that he wouldn’t put it that way, and rephrased what I had said in innocuous, Zionist-friendly terms. I asked if he would then sponsor or even vote for a Congressional bill “freezing” (my mother’s more neutral language) the $3 billion in annual foreign aid that Israel receives from the Obama administration until they comply with a settlement freeze. He called it a nonstarter and muttered something about Israel’s survival. Durbin is a Democrat, but it still astounds me how he or any other liberal has the nerve to explicitly downplay the gravity of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, and continue funding the occupation and the violations of Palestinian human rights. It astounds me how anyone but a right-winger could vote for Dick Durbin without feeling the pang of complicity in authoritarian human rights violations perpetrated not only by the US, but by regimes borne of Western imperialism.
In the century since WWI, communists, socialists, and anarchists have been marginalized, neutralized (when necessary), and ever further excised from a fundamentally right-wing political discourse. The reverberations of this course of history are now so ubiquitous as to elude the conscious observation of most Americans. As we saw in the MSNBC polemic, the liberal viewpoints represented in the corporate media are the centrist ideological pole of what Noam Chomsky calls the totalitarianism of corporate capitalism. The liberal establishment’s investment in advertising and corporate control of media drove the left-wing and working class press out of business. Fox News, of course, represents the heightened (while still politically correct) form of plutocratic ideology. Ironically, the Fox cornucopia of rabid anticommunism now targets, almost exclusively, the center-right “liberals” who purged the radical left from their own public and private institutions: Democrats. None of this is reflected on either “side” of the mainstream dialogue that paints Democrats as “the left”: As The Five’s Libertarian Contrarian, Greg Gutfeld, says every so often: it is totally typical of “the far left” to “try to paint Obama as a centrist.”
By “far left,” he means anyone left-of-center-right, but in a perverse way he’s correct: most Americans whose politics are to Obama’s left have already fallen back in line behind the President. Our much-maligned Diet Republican is no traitor to his party—in fact, the interests of 1½ -party totalitarianism require the electoral alternative of party-line neoliberalism. The more recognizably “American” archetype in the partisan dichotomy is, no surprise, also the more explicitly plutocratic embrace of the US brand of libertarian “upward mobility” identity. As Bush press secretary Dana Perino (also one of The Five) told Gutfeld on Red Eye: “Income mobility is still alive and well in America. … There’s two schools of thought. President Obama every day talks about ‘the rich need to pay more in order to…’ The other one is: do you believe that you are a better steward of your money? That you can make a better choice, that you can send your kid to a better school, if you decide and you work really hard, then you can maybe one day make it to the table linen circuit, and drive the Mercedes-Benz, and go to the opera. That’s why you get up every day, is to try to make yourself better.” This statement demonstrates, quite candidly, everything wrong with the mythology of “America” and its continuing role in maintaining the course of corporate capitalism.
The course itself can be traced back at least to the intersection between liberalism as a revolutionary doctrine and a nascent capitalism that produced the “Western” liberal democracy. This is evidenced by its attempt to synthesize the contradiction between democracy and the political leverage of property owners. In the constitutional debates of 1787-8, the so-called Father of the Constitution James Madison argued that, “if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian [land reform] law would soon take place. … Our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. … They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Innovation, no doubt, of the political sort: precisely the threat of the radical-left Boogeymen of the 20th century and their equivocation in state communism. The conflation of leftist politics with totalitarian communism is a thread of dominant ideology that found its willing collaborator in the Soviet Union’s own—and no less vehement—false claim to socialism.
This historical tendency towards rightist politics may help explain the recent Gallup poll, oft-cited on Fox News, which claimed that 40% of Americans consider themselves “conservative,” 35% “moderate,” and 21% “liberal.” The other 4%, perhaps, either “don’t know” or gave an unacceptable, “third party” designation like “libertarian.” Given that liberalism, in a less right-wing political spectrum, occupies the “moderate” position between radical and reactionary politics, there is a kernel of insight in the interpretation that many Democratic voters may not even consider themselves left-of-center. The Democratic Party of the past century is untenable in the extreme: Democrats have compromised many of their stated values in holding a center-right party line and advocating firmly right-wing economic and foreign policies, now called neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Neoliberalism is arguably a euphemism for global capitalism’s anti-democratic empire-via-trade control, and is the core of both parties’ economic policies, although Democrats at least claim to lean towards marginally higher tax rates and fewer cuts to social programs. Neoconservatism is a euphemism for empire-via-military and intelligence control, indispensible for both parties, but advocated on a more apparently discriminating basis by Democrats. Neoconservative emphasis on covert operations, bombing, and invasion to topple democratic governments and ungrateful dictators opens the door to neoliberal economic “liberalization.”
Party-line Republicans are social conservatives (anti-gay, pro-life, anti-gun control, anti-affirmative action), neoliberals, and staunch neoconservatives. Party-line Democrats are social liberals (pro-gay, pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-affirmative action, etc.), neoliberals, and “pragmatic” neoconservatives (i.e., “We’re for war, but not this war”; or, “we’re for war, but not yet.”). Both parties are fervently pro-Israel and pro-national security state. Perhaps the strongest case for the pervasiveness of neoliberalism and neoconservatism as bipartisan (non-)issues is that of the beloved Bernie Sanders, the Independent Vermont Senator who claims to be a socialist. I say “claims,” because as a good Marxist who has not forgotten his Benjamin, I can see that Sanders is waist-deep in capitalist-imperialist politics. As if it weren’t enough of an affront to international solidarity that he supports all military appropriation bills and military aid to Israel, he is also actively touting a facility in Vermont proposed by nuclear weapons manufacturer Sandia (itself owned by that darling of the military-industrial complex, Lockheed Martin). What is the supposed pluralism of liberal democracy worth if there is not one avowed anti-capitalist in any branch of government?
Benito Mussolini defined fascism as the synchronicity of state and corporate power. Instead of making industry subservient to the state as the head of the societal corpus, the corporatism of liberal capitalism displaces the state’s authority onto the anonymous unaccountability of the capitalist elite. There are currently around 35,000 lobbyists in DC, and thousands more in state capitals. Hedges writes that the “financial sector … spent more than $5 billion on political campaigns, influence peddling, and lobbying during the past decade, which resulted in sweeping deregulation, the gouging of consumers, our global financial meltdown, and the subsequent looting for the U.S. treasury.” Even Obama’s much-lauded health care bill will, at best, “force citizens to buy a predatory and defective product, while taxpayers provide health-related corporations with hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies.”
But enough about Obummer comparing himself favorably with his Republican rivals while doing right-wing things like lowering the corporate tax rate from 35% to 28% (25% for manufacturing). During the 20th century, rates for the highest tax bracket in the United States dropped steadily from 91% under the closet-pinko Eisenhower to 28% during Reagan’s presidency, never increasing during the Democratic presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter.
How right-wing are the 20th century Democrats? Allow me a smattering of illustrative examples: In 1945, the Truman administration sanctioned the genocide of almost a million Japanese, overwhelmingly civilians, in firebombing campaigns and the nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Kennedy, despite his status as a liberal hero, was a virulent anticommunist in full support of the social and political purges of HUAC and COINTELPRO. Kennedy’s administration supported repressive, anti-democratic dictatorships installed through CIA-led coups in countries “at risk” for “communism.” His administration fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident to manipulate the US public into supporting an already-begun war in Southeast Asia, first in defense of the French colonial power and later to prevent land reform, which threatened ruling-class and Western imperial interests. Any working-class or leftist movement anywhere was branded Soviet puppetry and an assault on “liberty.” The “proxy wars” against the Red Menace in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos would leave up to 2.5 million civilians dead.
Then, of course, there’s Bill Clinton—now adored and idealized by the dullest of left-leaning memories, he is perhaps the consummate liberal hypocrite. The list of President Clinton’s right-wing policies is formidable: he appointed as his Treasury Secretary former World Bank chief economist Larry Summers, who supported the Financial Services Modernization Act Clinton signed into law in 1999. The act is a partial repeal of Glass-Steagall, the 1933 legislation separating banking, securities, and insurance companies. Obama has criticized FSMA as a direct contributor to the crash of 2008, but has failed to rally support for a repeal among Democrats. Clinton signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and Defense of Marriage Acts, two blatant pieces of social conservatism. Only 14 Senators (all Democrats) voted against DOMA. Among the Act’s supporters were Republican Rick Santorum and Democrats Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, Harry Reid, and Carl Levin, co-author of the NDAA. DOMA prohibits same-sex marriages from enjoying the almost 1,000 federal benefits for married couples, and allows the vast majority of states not to recognize legal same-sex marriages from other states.
In 1994 Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement with bipartisan support, sparking a global “development” towards further economic liberalization. Free trade agreements like NAFTA, centered around deregulation and privatization, make it even more profitable for transnational corporations to exploit flimsy/nonexistent labor laws and impoverished workforces. The human rights violations range from the demonstrably intolerable conditions of Apple’s Foxconn sweatshops in China to the 182,936 suicides committed by Indian farmers when, in the wake of India’s neoliberal reforms, they were plunged into insurmountable debt to corporations like Monsanto, DuPont, Land O’Lakes, and Bayer. The neoliberal institutions of the World Bank and the IMF impose on indebted nation-states privatized, transnational investments and loans tied to right-wing economic reforms, respectively.
In 1996 Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, fulfilling his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” As a result, Congress must renew unemployment benefits almost annually: thanks to Clinton, no one can survive on welfare. He increased the Pentagon and incarceration budgets, thereby playing a direct role in the authoritarian networks of oppression that are the military- and prison-industrial complexes. He also barred inmates’ access to Pell grants.
Thus we see the contradictions in each of the two ideological movements that produce the narrow dimensions of US political discourse: one that constructs liberals as “the left,” and another that constructs Democratic party line as liberal. This is why, according to Rolling Stone’s Michael Davis, the White House recently told “Democrats and progressives” that the US might pull out of Afghanistan earlier than 2014, but that they should “keep quiet” because “it’s an election year.” It’s why Obama is widely considered a champion of social programs for mandating privatized health care and offering less drastic cuts to “entitlements,” and why he is considered the “civil rights” candidate despite his own calculated admission that his views on gay marriage are still “evolving.” It’s why Larry Summers was the first Director of Obama’s National Economic Council; it’s why Obama’s Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner—also Summers’s mentee—was tipped for the post in 2008 regardless of which candidate won the Presidency.
This is why media complaints about partisan polarization “on both sides of the aisle” will always mystify the true totalitarian nature of corporate capitalism. There is no aisle, and it has no sides, except the contours of the language we use to describe, and ultimately become consumed by, ideological systems. This is why the largest recipient of Wall Street campaign contributions in history, a man whose three Chiefs of Staff all got rich on Wall Street, can position himself as the candidate of “the people.” Because, really, even if “the people” start to see the plutocracy-lite in Obama’s hollow liberalism, who would blame them if they were too cynical to see a contradiction?