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.