All the Populism Money Can Buy


Across the country, last weekend there were anti-war demonstrations, modest in turnout, but hopefully a warning to Obama that war without end or reason in Afghanistan, plus 40,000 more troops to Kabul, is not why people voted for him.

I spoke at our own little rally in my local town of Eureka, California. My neighbor Ellen Taylor decided to spice up the proceedings by having a guillotine on the platform, right beside the Eureka Courthouse steps. It’s in the genes. Her father was Telford Taylor, chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg.

When she told me about the plan for the guillotine, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. But Ellen said she wanted to reach out to new constituencies beyond the committed left, and what better siren call than the swoosh of the Avenging Blade? A hundred years ago, people liked to stress the similarities of the American and French revolutions. Mark Twain composed the most passionate defense of the Terror  ever written in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court . But then, after 1917, the French Revolution was seen as the harbinger of Bolshevik excess and it grew less popular.

Up on the platform, I took the guillotine issue head on. In the  Terror, only 666 aristocrats had been topped in Paris in what is now the Place de la Concorde; 1,543 throughout France. The reward: a decisive smack on the snout of the land-holding aristocracy; durable popular power for peasants, workers and the petit bourgeois: M. le patron and M. le proprietaire stepped into history.

Here, in America, the corporate class is now entirely out of control, lawless and beyond the sanction of prosecutor, juror or ballot box. If corporate lawbreakers felt that somewhere along the line the retribution of the guillotine might await them, it would concentrate their minds marvelously, and cow them into lawfulness.

I got some cheers, and a charming young hippy, Brooklyn, mother of three, told me she wanted to move to France forthwith. Ellen asked the executioner, Michael Evenson, to put the contraption through its paces. She invited the crowd to call out designated victims – CEOs of the major banks, billionaires of note. Michael hitched the blade up six feet, and down it came with quite a satisfactory thwock.

Three days earlier, Goldman Sachs announced $3.1 billion in third-quarter profits, and set aside $5.3 billion for bonuses. Since G-Sachs is only still in business because of public bailout money, the bonus payments really make people mad. On the whole, Americans aren’t keen on axe blades, preferring the lynch mob’s rope, but if the target had been the board members of Goldman Sachs, I’m sure they’d make a generous exception, particularly after Lord Griffith’s remarks were widely quoted on this side of the Atlantic. Griffiths, vice chairman of Sachs International, told an audience at St. Paul’s Cathedral last Tuesday that the  public should “tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity for all. I believe that we should be thinking about the medium-term common good, not the short-term common good …”

Left and liberal commentators have talked yearningly about a new populist fever raging in the American body politic, prompted by the spectacle of bailouts for bankers but foreclosures and the dole for everyone else. I can’t say there’s much sign of populism in any energetic form. Look at movies from the Thirties, like Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and there’s a real edge to the anger of that time Capra felt it artistically important to convey. These days, the anger is formulaic. Over the weekend, the liberal opinion makers at the New York Times – Bob Herbert and Frank Rich – chewed out Goldman Sachs. Growled Herbert:

“Even as tens of millions of working Americans are struggling to hang onto their jobs and keep a roof over their families’ heads, the wise guys on Wall Street are licking their fat-cat chops over yet another round of obscene multibillion-dollar bonuses – this time thanks to the bailout billions that were sent their way by Uncle Sam, with very little in the way of strings attached.”

The Obama administration promptly rushed to cover its left flank by announcing it’s planning to impose cuts in executive pay at seven companies with substantial bailout funds. The U.S. senate’s parlor populist, Bernie Sanders, dutifully proclaimed that the Obama administration deserve praise for “taking an important step forward in trying to control the obscene compensation packages of the top executives on Wall Street.”

Note the meek qualifier, “trying.” The truth of the matter is that the Obama team has managed the tricky shot of giving more bailout money to the banks than the cumulative dispensations of all previous U.S. governments, while at the same time NOT giving any significant debt relief to ruined homeowners, a huge slice of whom is poor, black and Hispanic. Obama is not seeking to reform the financial system, and it would be beyond miraculous if he did, since the contrivers of the present mess – Lawrence Summers, et al – were given a welcoming clap on the back by the new president, as he stepped into the White House and told them to get on with the job. This amazing bailout for the existing corrupt system – as if Lenin had used the October revolution to restore the Romanovs – has been engineered without significant opposition from organized labor or the left-ßliberal end of Obama’s own party.

Of course, people curse the bankers and their political flunkeys as they watch their 10Ks atomize, their homes go, and their jobs disappear to China. They smolder as they watch the parade of Murdoch’s demagogues on Fox, flirting and toying with the theme of Obama’s assassination. The Obama administration dares to go to war with Glen Beck, apparently the only enemy it feels capable of confronting, at least at the time of writing. The gossip site Gawker calls on its readers to turn in all discreditable information about Goldman Sachs executives. The liberal talk host Olberman calls on his audience to rat out Beck. Neither invitation has thus far yielded any significant harvest.

Alas, American populism needs the octane of cash. During the Clinton scandal, Hustler supremo Larry Flynt wanted his audience to rat out high-ranking Republican sinners. He offered $100,000 cash rewards, and the dirt rolled in. Populism has to be cash-based these days. Maybe that was Ralph Nader’s point. His first work of fiction, 700 pages long, is titled Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us.

Kevin Gray, Mark Rudd, Bruce Franklin…The Gang’s All Here!

Ten months into Obama-time, the plight of black Americans is terrible. Yet overwhelmingly they rally behind the president. In a powerful report from South Carolina Kevin Alexander Gray asks the question: what should the black political agenda be?

New to CounterPunch, Mark Rudd contributes an important piece on movement-building – task number one for the left today. He counterposes “organizing” with “activism” and describes what it will take to build a movement.  H. Bruce Franklin gives a chronology of the march into Afghanistan.

Subscribe today!

ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

December 01, 2015
John Wight
From Iraq to Syria: Repeating a Debacle
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: the Left Takes Charge
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Revenge? The Fight for the Border
Sami Al-Arian
My Ordeal: One of America’s Many Political Trials Since 9/11
Steffen Böhm
Why the Paris Climate Talks Will Fail, Just Like All the Others
Gilbert Mercier
Will Turkey Be Kicked Out of NATO?
Bilal El-Amine
The Hard Truth About Daesh and How to Fight It
Pete Dolack
Solidarity Instead of Hierarchy as “Common Sense”
Dan Glazebrook
Rhodes Must Fall: Decolonizing Education
Colin Todhunter
Big Oil, TTIP and the Scramble for Europe
Eric Draitser
Terror in Mali: An Attack on China and Russia?
Linn Washington Jr.
Torture and Other Abuses Make Turkey as American as Apple Pie
Randy Shaw
Krugman is Wrong on Gentrification
Raouf Halaby
Time to Speak Out Against Censorship
Jesse Jackson
It’s Time for Answers in Laquan McDonald Case
Patrick Walker
Wake Up Zombie, Kick Up a Big Stink!
November 30, 2015
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Embrace of Totalitarianism is America’s Dirty Little Secret
Omur Sahin Keyif
An Assassination in Turkey: the Killing of Tahir Elci
Uri Avnery
There is No Such Thing as International Terrorism
Robert Fisk
70,000 Kalashnikovs: Cameron’s “Moderate” Rebels
Jamie Davidson
Distortion, Revisionism & the Liberal Media
Patrick Cockburn
Nasty Surprises: the Problem With Bombing ISIS
Robert Hunziker
The Looming Transnational Battlefield
Ahmed Gaya
Breaking the Climate Mold: Fighting for the Planet and Justice
Matt Peppe
Alan Gross’s Improbable Tales on 60 Minutes
Norman Pollack
Israel and ISIS: Needed, a Thorough Accounting
Colin Todhunter
India – Procession of the Dead: Shopping Malls and Shit
Roger Annis
Canada’s New Climate-Denying National Government
Binoy Kampmark
Straining the Republic: France’s State of Emergency
Bill Blunden
Glenn Greenwald Stands by the Official Narrative
Jack Rasmus
Japan’s 5th Recession in 7 Years
Karen Lee Wald
Inside the Colombia Peace Deal
Geoff Dutton
War in Our Time
Charles R. Larson
Twofers for Carly Fiorina
John Dear
An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind
Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism