Lead article from the November-December 2014 issue of News & Letters
by Ron Kelch
The U.S. government took an ominous, reactionary political turn in the 2014 midterm elections, with Republicans taking control of the Senate. Extreme pro-war Senators like Joni Ernst in Iowa and Tom Cotton in Arkansas join veterans like Senator “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran” John McCain, who will now control the Armed Services Committee and is hell-bent for new “boots on the ground” in Syria and Iraq. The whole Republican campaign—including these pro-war, pro-fossil-fuel, pro-“fetus is a person” candidates—ran on a cynically deceptive anti-Obama mantra.
A very unpopular Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who will be the new majority leader, pulled out a victory promising to uproot Obamacare “root and branch” as though the popular, successful KYnect insurance is not Kentucky’s own incarnation of “Obamacare.”
Cotton created a fiction that Obama immigration policies will allow IS to enter the country through an alliance with Mexican drug runners.
Packaging herself as a down-home country girl who grew up castrating hogs, Ernst, like many of her fellow Republicans, hid her absurd view that a fertilized human egg has the full rights of personhood. Multiple crises of impending war, ecological catastrophe, and a new global economic downturn mean time is running out for humanity under this disconnect between thought and reality endemic to capitalist politics.
ALIENATED YOUTH STAY AWAY
One stark contrast to six years ago, when many of the just defeated Senators first got elected under the impact of a sweeping victory for the first African-American President, is that young people stayed away from the polls in droves. The result was a small and elderly electorate. Those under 30 comprised only 12% of the 2014 electorate while they comprised 18% in 2008; those over 60 comprised 37% now, while only 23% then. Dramatic disaffection among the youth is not due only to traditional low turnout in midterm elections.
In 2008 Obama exclaimed to the celebrating multitude that they themselves were “the change they had been waiting for.” However, as president, he moved from that idea to a politically centered pragmatism, trying to work with a disciplined and nihilistic opposition fixated on undermining anything he did. As he saved the financial system and the world economy from total collapse, President Obama told the bailed-out Wall Street financiers who precipitated the crisis that he was the only thing standing between them and “the pitchforks” of those who were suffering the consequences of the crisis, many of whom later occupied the nation’s public squares.
Wall Street prospered more than ever as inequality surged through the U.S. economy. Wall Street repaid the Obama government’s largesse by aligning with the Republican Party and its strident, ideological Right, in an unrelenting war against the poor, minorities and women. A spectacle of marketed lies ensued, including a drumbeat of racist Right media questioning Obama’s birth origin and religion. Further, a reactionary Supreme Court overturned the idea of democratic discourse by designating money as “free speech.” It enabled rescued billionaires to market as big and as many lies as they needed to consolidate political power.
PLUTOCRATS’ BIG LIES
Consolidate they did, especially on the local and state level, where gerrymandering in the 2010 Congressional redistricting guaranteed a huge Republican majority in the House of Representatives in the 2012 election despite Democrats having received more votes overall in the House elections.
With this undermining of democracy, the shameless plutocrats claimed rampant voter fraud—which in reality is nearly non-existent. Though a transparent cynical ploy, this big lie was used to enact a contemptible mix of voter suppression tactics put into effect in 33 states: requiring photo ID, eliminating early voting and same-day registration, purging of state voter rolls that selectively focuses on minorities, and disenfranchising nearly 6 million who had a felony conviction at any time in their lives—all designed to lessen poor, student and minority turnout at the polls.
Texas now has a virtual poll tax and a bureaucratic quagmire for those lacking new identification requirements. It was at first overturned by one court but then upheld by the Republican-controlled Supreme Court that recently gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said this ruling alone disenfranchises hundreds of thousands of voters. In Georgia, where African Americans don’t take the right to vote for granted, Black churches, which played an integral part in the Civil Rights Movement, conducted a massive “souls to the polls” registration drive. With voter registration under the control of a Republican Secretary of State, 50,000 new registrations simply disappeared.
African Americans, whose vote was solidly against the Republicans, have repeatedly put American democracy on trial and found it guilty of fraud. The truth is expressed in persistent deep currents of revolt in society, like the continuous mass actions and demonstrations by Blacks and others—sparked by the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.—against militarized police who repeatedly gun down unarmed Black men and women with impunity.
Women also voted against Republicans who tried to obfuscate their war on women by fecklessly coming out for over-the-counter contraception—while, at one and the same time, supporting corporations and quasi-religious institutions that refuse to let their insurance pay for birth control—and who support draconian anti-abortion measures that would criminalise miscarriages and ban abortions even at the risk of a woman’s life. Republicans also attacked women economically by slashing food stamps and opposing minimum wage increases, issues that affect women—especially poor and minority women—the most. The gender gap was again wide: 47% of women voted for Republicans, as against 57% of men.
September saw one of the largest demonstrations in recent history as hundreds of thousands in New York and around the world came out for the People’s Climate March (see p. 11). In spite of the overwhelming scientific consensus that continued use of fossil fuels threatens a catastrophe for the environment and humanity, the big-lie Republicans marketed doubt and outright denial. The most obnoxious, fanatical denier of climate science, Sen. James Inhofe, will now head the committee on environment.
In spite of the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions—and without regard to studies revealing problems of water contamination, earthquakes and respiratory illnesses—big energy companies have been allowed to go full bore into the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) method of extracting fossil fuels over the last decade. Oil companies poured millions of dollars into defeating local initiatives against fracking; yet Denton, Texas, where the new oil and gas boom started, passed a fracking ban, as did Athens, Ohio, as well as San Benito and Mendocino Counties in California.
WAR CLOUDS ON THE HORIZON
The explosive growth in U.S. oil and gas extraction has lowered the price of oil, producing a small, temporary lift to the U.S. economy. Lower oil prices complement sanctions against heavily oil-reliant Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear capacity, and against Russia, which, though economically weak and equally dependent on oil, is nevertheless a military nuclear behemoth, and is constantly testing NATO and the U.S. militarily. In both cases economic war is on the verge of becoming actual war. Unreconstructed neo-cons—thoroughly discredited for bringing the U.S. into the Middle East quagmire with their fiction of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—are now back in vogue in the Senate, demanding military steps against Russia’s continuing incursion into Ukraine and no negotiated deal with Iran.
Obama desperately wants a deal with Iran over keeping their nuclear capabilities short of being able to make a bomb. The U.S. is now effectively allied with Iran in the war against IS in Iraq. The Wall Street Journal just publicized a leak out of the government security apparatus that the President has secretly written to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that a deal could open an era of cooperation on mutual interests. The Republican House has already threatened to obstruct any attempt to end Iran sanctions and, with neo-con Senators like Tom Cotton, who made unqualified support for Israel an election issue, peace with Iran will be even more improbable. Now both houses of Congress are more closely allied with Israel’s extreme, indeed fascist, ruling party (see “Israel decimates Gaza as world faces global counter-revolutions,” Sept.-Oct. N&L) that wants the U.S. to fight a war for it in Iran.
As Commander-in-Chief, Obama never kept his promise to uphold the rule of law, which demanded closing the extra-legal prison at Guantanamo and making the previous administration accountable for war crimes like torture. Instead, he pragmatically accommodated the security establishment and the generals’ war surge strategies before finally attempting to end two unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only brave whistleblowers, vigorously prosecuted by this administration and demonized as “leakers,” exposed the illegal NSA police-state apparatus that intrudes into all our lives.
BIGGEST LIE IS CAPITALIST REALITY ITSELF
A more formidable danger is an open big lie, a broken-record talking point in this election, that government needs to cut back so that capital accumulation can proceed and prosperity can return. For these politicians, and their economists, empirical facts don’t matter. The reason the U.S. outperformed countries that adopted austerity policies is that after the collapse of 2008, which for a moment even scared the bejeebers out of the rulers, a stimulus package, though woefully inadequate, passed. By 2010 the obstructionists came back to power in the House, forcing cutbacks.
The idea that austerity is needed so that government spending doesn’t crowd out private investment is a lie because private capitalists aren’t investing. They are hoarding cash in a way not seen since the Great Depression. Capital accumulation has reached an internal barrier, manifesting what Marx called its absolute general law. Rather than reproducing its source of value in living labor, namely jobs, it is producing unemployment and pauperization. The economy’s growth trajectory remains far below pre-2008 levels.
The International Monetary Fund now warns that what former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers called “secular stagnation” will, without fiscal stimulus from governments, push the world economy into a deflationary contraction.
Today, Keynesian economists cite 1937, when President Roosevelt turned off government spending in favor of austerity and the Great Depression came back with a vengeance. The 2008 collapse revealed that the new finance capital stage of capital accumulation has put the reins of the whole system in the hands of a minuscule minority. Wresting that control away from those parasitic takers would involve a full break with the idea that our relation to nature and to each other has to be subject to capital and its needs.
As in 1937, today only war seems able to open the spigot of government money. President Obama just boosted the military “advisors” on the ground in Iraq to 3,100 troops and will get another $3.2 billion for war in Syria and Iraq. Sen. McCain has already promised to end sequestration’s limits on military funding to buy new weapons and pay for new military operations.
A cry heard at the People’s Climate March was that “time is running out.” Indeed it is as long as capitalism perpetuates itself through, to paraphrase Hegel, its total inversion of thought and reality, their absolute estrangement from one another. One aspect of how in the 2014 election U.S. politics reached new depths of depravity was the way Republicans associated the Ebola crisis with Obama, and some governors started victimizing health workers who returned from Africa after fighting the Ebola outbreak. (See “Ebola fearmongering,” p. 1.)
In this regard Maine Gov. Paul LePage should get a “profile in cowardice” award. He was behind in the polls but got reelected after garnering national attention by using state troopers to quarantine Kaci Hickox, a volunteer returning from treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone. LePage took action against this young nurse without regard to the science showing that Ebola patients without symptoms are not contagious. Hickox personifies a true, selfless risk-taker in contrast to the constant malarkey heard about billionaire capitalist “risk-takers” deserving to wallow in riches.
Karl Marx once suggested that finance capitalism made it easy to take the reins of the whole of production to facilitate its reorganization by freely associated workers. Such an effort should be centered not in the state but in society, with workers like those thousands of healthcare volunteers treating patients and fighting Ebola in Africa, who personify what Marx called a new passion emerging in society that can reconstruct it on a totally new foundation.