Follow the Campaign Money: The (Relative) Difference between Obama and Romney

Look, I’m not excited about the possibility of another Obama administration, either. I think, as the independent historians and intellectuals Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky repeatedly argue, and as any honest look at his policy record shows, Obama has proved relatively little hindrance to the military-industrial and corporate-lobbying interests that have steadily gained control of the US political system since the First and Second World Wars. In some ways — particularly in terms of imperial expansion, indifferent drone warfare, and decreasing safeguards for civil liberties — Obama has been worse than Bush. (We should remember, of course, this doesn’t imply any actual difference in intent, character or loyalty; Obama is simply continuing the Wall-St-governed policy trajectory shared by Democractic and Republican administrations for decades.)

However, like many progressives and leftists, this whole campaign I’ve personally teetered on what I’m actually going to do with my vote come November — hold my nose and vote for Obama as a small but necessary gesture toward obstructing the more-explicitly corporatist agenda of a Romney/Ryan ticket, or just wash one’s hands of the system and “throw away” one’s vote, by either writing in a loser or abstaining altogether.

And, like many, for me the real issue in terms of practical “support” depends on just how seriously we should take the symbolic differences represented in the mainstream media between Obama and Romney. The “new libertarians” I’ve recently been writing against, alongside progressives and other real leftists, are indeed correct on the one basic point that on the most significant political and social threats to authentic democracy in the US and across the globe today, the differences between Obama and Romney are, to quote Cornel West, “more a matter of style than substance.” However, from Ron Paul to Chomsky and back, the single thread unifying the US prophets of systemic doom has been an acute awareness that it is corporate capitalism driving the political engines of US foreign and domestic policy, wreaking havoc on civil liberties and human rights the world over and drawing America further into a neo-feudal class system controlled by a police-state.

Given this (albeit thin) level of agreement between the new libertarians and traditional leftists of any stripe about the corporate-state alliance, I think it worth re-posing the question about the “real issues” at stake in November by gesturing toward the most recent data about campaign financing. If the FEC data released in late July is anything close to accurate, then how in the hell can we ignore the fact that the most powerful institutions — the ones whose fraud and gambling directly caused the 2008 crisis — have chosen Mitt Romney over Barack Obama? (click names for info)

So, for God’s sake, yes — let’s unite to work for a real alternative. It’s true, the corporate-state will have its way in this campaign, no matter who’s elected. These centers of global finance will be the real winners in November, irrespective of the color of their figurehead. However, before we refuse the lesser of two evils, by either “voting with our conscience” or “throwing our vote away” because the system is indeed broken, we should think long, hard and pragmatically about the point of politics: which is not for us to devise and implement some incorruptible, ideal political system, but to ward off the most severe threats to a humane social order by restraining institutionalized greed and evil. In the language of the bible, all human institutions are fallen, but they are powers “ordained” with the task of preserving the basic social conditions in which justice and freedom can be lived. When all signs point to the fact that the regnant centers of institutionalized hubris and self-serving power decisively prefer one candidate over another, that ever-present political vocation of slowing down systems of social death should give the realists among us — who aren’t looking for a savior in any party figurehead, anyway — at least a moment’s pause.

Reasons not to be a “Libertarian” (1): It’s the economy, stupid

I’ve decided to start a series of posts laying out what I take to be real world problems with the trend among many decent conservative-leaning folk, now disenfranchised with the US’s de facto two-party system, to see “Libertarianism” as a viable alternative to the given possibilities of the left and the right. I should say up front that this series is less about what libertarianism was or should be, historically, and more about why it is that erstwhile right-wingers see it as an ideology with which they want to now identify. I will, of course, be quite keen to learn from any of you who happen across this blog about this particular ideological history, and how it informs our present. I’m just saying, don’t expect a history lesson; my aim is rather the opposite one of trying to understand ourselves and the ideological alternatives that constitute our past and future better, by observing some things of note about our how this particular ideological option functions in today’s political discourse.

Before I mount this soapbox, let me say up front how deeply I sympathize with many of the critical concerns expressed by the new libertarians — specifically,all those which fall under the rubric of “corporatist” politics, in which there is a deep collusion between “Big Government” and “Big Business.” I admire, for example, Ron Paul’s principled stance against things like corporate lobbying; the racist criminal justice system; the excesses and injustices of the US-led (yet global) “military-industrial complex.” I have a sincere respect for those who take these problems, and all others associated with “money in politics,” seriously. This series will, I hope, reflect that affiliation, and be seen by my libertarian friends as an expression of that respect for common conviction and desire for better understanding about serious differences. I couldn’t write an equally-respectful series about Republicans because, even though I know and love many who self-identify that way, that doesn’t change the fact that, ideologically, their sense for the moral problems leftists and libertarians alike are concerned about is virtually non-existent. (All that to say: please, take the “stupid” in the blog title with the intended dosage of salt.)

That total lack of respect I have for contemporary Republican ideology brings me, libertarian friends, to critique numero uno: the main reason not to be a libertarian is because libertarians agree with Republicans that the source of political corruption is “Big Government,” not corporate capitalism. To be sure, libertarians have a lot to say against corporatist corruption and its political influence. But their critique here is ideologically driven by the problem of Big Government: corporatism is a problem first and foremost because it is an aspect of overreaching political structures, not because corporate hegemony (in simply economic terms) is itself an unjust phenomenon. While there are surely many libertarians who do object on grounds of morality or social justice to aspects of corporate-capitalism — e.g., they see the environmental havoc it’s wreaking — nevertheless, ideologically, the source of this immorality is not bad economic policy, but policy itself. In the simplest terms, libertarians today find their moral center in the sensibility that government itself is the root problem. It’s not the fact that what bends our leaders’ ears, and lines their pockets, are inhumane economic agendas (e.g. corporate capitalism); it’s that our policy-makers have any say in the matter, to begin with.

This basic ideological sensibility is why Ron Paul was even allowed on the stage with the outright corporatist candidates. Despite his critical differences from the other Republican candidates (which are indeed real), what Ron Paul devotees who dramatize his “revolutionary” potential systematically fail to notice is that, despite the fact that he names the basic “problem” in a way that is markedly different from other Republicans (namely, he’s explicitly against government-business “collusion”), he is of one mind with the corporatists on the social “solution”: less policy, most crucially of any kind which might impede the “free market.” That is why Paul was allowed to appear stage-right on our TVs: you get all the rhetorical flair of an anti-corporatist agenda (the sincerity of which I’m not doubting), which can then be twisted as “party diversity,” slipping a bit of “moral integrity” onto the ticket betwixt all those greased palms and overtly fake smiles. Yet, practically, his economic position is pro-corporate hegemony. Because, again, Ron Paul style libertarianism, like corporatists of all stripes (including most Democratic and Republican representatives), sees the problem in political, not economic terms. In other words, the problem for these libertarians is political power itself — the right and authority to “make law,” with social Law seen as the inverse of personal Liberty. This notion blinds would-be radicals to the truth that the root problem is not “Law” or “Government” as such,or in the abstract, but the particular form social law and/or governance takes when determined by narrow interests. As Marx and other insightful observers of capital’s inner-workings have taught us, these narrow — shall we say “private?” — interests most often have to do with that root of all evil, the love of money, of one’s own material gain, above all else.

So, I agree with you, libertarians, that we should all be about getting “money out of politics” — because it rigs elections, because it bends policy toward private interests, etc. But we need to have more, and better, discussion, about why “money in politics” is such a corrupting force to begin with, and how best to deal with it. I’m afraid that as long as you mislocate the problem in law and social order itself, the rest of us have no concrete (nor indeed any logical) reason to trust that your way of regulating society — that is, by freeing “the market” from any legal form of public accountability and social constraint — won’t just pour water on the root and help that corporate flower bloom even bigger.

The Real Criminal(s) in London: Moral hypocrisy is worse than nihilism

The riots in London over the past few days pose a dramatic opportunity for reflection about the state of criminal justice today. On a purely numerical or pragmatic basis, it makes sense that the media focus has shifted from what sparked the riots — the murder of Mark Duggan, a black north Londoner, by police — to the ongoing and explicitly unrelated riots and lootings that began in the wake of the Duggan family’s peaceful protest. One (more) victim of police brutality is one thing; but these riots are disturbing the peace! I don’t want to simply argue the inverse — that the “real crime” is Duggan’s murder, not the riots and looting. If the riots were related to the murder, and explicitly political, that might be an option. But I do want to suggest both that it’s wrong to insist there’s no connection at all between the murder and the riots, and that the real culprit — what actually undergirds the “nihilism” and immorality of the riots and looting — is represented by the Duggan murder: namely, a political culture that (over-)criminalizes the poor, and in so doing serves the economic interests of those whose policies and business practices depend on an alienated and underprivileged working class.  The real culprit here — the man behind the curtains, pulling the levers of social chaos  — is manifest not first and foremost in the base immorality and social carelessness of the rioters, but in the the self-serving idiocy of the response of London mayor Boris Johnson and home secretary Theresa May, who dismiss these events as “pure criminality” and place blame on the culture of false “entitlement” and victimization among today’s youth. (As Zoe Williams rightly points out, this is an authoritarian reading of our social context.)

First, it’s important to recognize that the thugs looting JD Sports and family-owned corner stores do not claim to be representatives of law and order. Indeed, they are keenly aware that the given system of law and order is not working for them, but against them. The conditions and opportunities of their life, when compared with those who happen to have been born on the other side of town, is a hand dealt from a deck already stacked against their well-being, a system that in many respects, as Barbara Ehrenreich so convincingly argues, is not simply indifferent to their life but positively feeds off and delights in their misery. The moral “nihilism” on display in the riots is, therefore, not senseless violence, but the re-expression of the social violence — the alienation and degradation — that is constantly executed upon and in the lives of the British underclass.

Once that point is recognized, it appears quite normal how a spark becomes a forest fire. As Williams’ article on the psychology of looting  suggests, anyone observant of prison violence knows that conditions of hopelessness breed internal hatred. Where there is no hope for one’s own material well-being, it is normal to lash out at oneself or those who are not the direct causes of the injustices done to you, with little thought even for your own life. But it is ethically naive to simply place “blame” on victims of systemic injustice. The sources of nihilistic violence, the sources of the moral indifference and social thoughtlessness perpetrated by the looters and rioters, lie in systems of morality and regimes of power that claim to be moral and just, on the one hand, while actively consigning a vast majority to the bottom of the socio-economic barrel. Our neo-liberal economic arrangements necessitate that those at the top — irrespective of how they got there — stay at the top by maintaining a bottom. One political facet of such an economy is what Eherenreich names as the criminalization of poverty, or what Claudia Webbe has identified operative now in Tottenham — namely, a history of certain communities being “overpoliced as criminals and underpoliced as victims.” As Common says in “The Food,” “a system that tries victims, we livin’ in.”

So we can’t act as if these thugs have nothing to be pissed off about; they have more than enough reason to take to the streets. It may be regrettable that they’re not educated or organized enough to take out their well-fed anger in more socially productive ways — i..e, by engaging in non- (or at least less-)violent political protest, as this sister recommends. The inspiring pro-democracy protests in the mid-East over the past year have given the rest of the world much to learn from in that respect. But in the meantime, we have to be on guard against moralistic and individualistic narratives of social violence quick to blame victims and unwilling to question systems. Such narratives only serve to further distract us from clear-cut cases of injustice and criminality– e.g., police corruption and brutality; the hording of ungodly amounts of wealth by the few — and to further blind us to the forces that determine the economic and political make-up of our world. The Right’s tendency, as represented most explicitly by the Tea Party, is to respond to the faltering of the neoliberal global economy by engaging in just such distraction and blindness: by proposing, in the form of inhumane budget reform and draconian slashes to social services, that it is the ordinary citizen, the majority who are the poor, who are asking and expecting too much from “government” and the rest of us, and whose very lives should thus be offered up as scapegoats for the system. But as Seamus Milne writes, the greed and looting seen here is a reflection of the very constitution of our society. That’s why “[i]t is essential for those in power in Britiain” — for the narrative they and most media tell about themselves and our world — “that the riots now sweeping the country can have no cause beyond feral wickedness.”

My point is that these rioters are obviously acting immorally, not only by breaking “the law” (taking what they do not “own”) but more significantly by doing further damage to their own communities and the livelihoods of their neighbors. But that doesn’t mean there is “no point” — no rhyme or reason — to their action. The system of morality that so easily condemns them as criminals — the given oligarchic system of property and the rule of law which protects owners of unjust capital — is not their system. It does not work for them, but against them. The poor are told, just like everyone else, that they are what they (are able to) buy, which necessarily implies that, when they can’t afford what they should want, the fault lies with them, they are not who they should be. The default story told about the regnant economy by those invested in it is that poverty is a moral failing, which requires another narrative in which the poor are ever the cause of their own poverty. In reality, however, the poor perpetuate this system only by having no choice but to live in it, or rebel against it. It is a system that itself exists without (any good) rhyme or reason, as it routinely de-criminalizes owners of unjust capital and lauds patently nihilistic policy-makers, who shape our common world according to their own self-interest. It is a system that must be resisted and overturned for society to have any real stability or peace. The form that resistance and overturning should take can be debated, and I certainly agree it only makes things worse when it takes the form of the (self-)destruction of our own and neighbors’ communities and businesses, as it has here. But it is a shallow moralism and sign of contextual unawareness when we place blame for this willing expression of the youth’s inner rage on the youth themselves — as if they’ve got nothing to riot about.