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It was Spring of 2010, less than a year after the official end of the last recession but still deep in the throes of the Great Recession, that Barack Obama’s ‘deficit commission’ met for the first time. With close to twenty-five million people unemployed or underemployed and the number living in extreme poverty rising quickly, Mr. Obama’s central economic concern was cutting government spending. ‘Entitlements,’ rather than bankers, militarists and tax cheats, were bankrupting the country. And the co-Chairs of the commission he appointed had the solution: cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and corporate taxes and reduce government regulation of business.
With the faux surprise and opportunistic rants that met Mitt Romney’s 47% ‘dependent / victims’ comments, who noticed that none in his audience challenged them? And who among those who have read similar statements (link) from Barack Obama’s ‘deficit’ commission believes that Mr. Obama’s big-money supporters are of different mindsets than Mr. Romney’s? It was these very same people in Mr. Romney’s audience who Barack Obama had dedicated his first term in office to serving. And in fact, Mr. Romney’s comments were only the proverbial tip of the iceberg when it comes to the divergent descriptions of reality that the ruling class adheres to.
Within the cloistered walls of Manhattan and official Washington the belief system that sustains the true ‘dependent’ class of bankers, corporate executives and their servants in government finds unfettered voice. The Federal government caused the housing crisis by forcing bankers to make home loans to poor people. The Federal government caused the Great Recession by incurring too much debt in order to sustain the ‘entitlement’ classes. Excessive regulation caused the financial meltdown of 2008. The unemployed are so because unemployment benefits provide them with comfortable lives without their having to work. The rich are rich because they’ve worked harder for it than everyone else.
The self-satisfied declamations against Mr. Romney’s comments by Democrats and their supporters depend on near complete ignorance of Mr. Obama’s actual policies while in office. Who in Mr. Romney’s audience, including Mr. Romney, benefited from the unconditional bank bailouts that Obama Generals Geithner, Summers and Bernanke orchestrated? Who among them stand to benefit from Mr. Obama’s top-secret Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement that seals the power of international capital over labor and environmental regulations? And who among them stand to benefit from Mr. Obama’s build-out of the domestic infrastructure of surveillance, policing and the legal framework needed to crush rebellion? As Mitt Romney is in the process of demonstrating, it is clearly Barack Obama who is the more effective tool for promoting ruling class interests.
Mr. Romney’s critics don’t appear to have asked why the ruling class has such fundamentally different explanations of the state of the world than many of the rest of us? Part of the answer is undoubtedly that people who spend their lives at $50,00 per plate fundraisers communicate almost exclusively with other people who spend their lives at $50,000 per plate fundraisers. The views developed in such rarified confines are not very often put to a test. How many of these same fundraisers has Mr. Obama held? And Mr. Romney’s comments certainly appear self-serving, conceived to salve the psyches of a class who in 2008 may have felt at some risk of seeing their wealth and prestige disappear in a puff of smoke in the financial meltdown of that year. But between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, who was it that unconditionally revived their fortunes with bank bailouts while leaving twenty-five million people under / unemployed and forty-six million so poor they qualify for food stamps?
Mitt Romney’s public persona is exactly as he is—a deeply clueless aristocrat born to wealth and power who’s political interests lie exclusively with those of his class (and race). And his views, as with those of his class, are based on his experience of the world. That many of the rest of us, including Barack Obama, have lived experience quite different from Mr. Romney’s provides us with perspectives different from his. And therein lies the rub—which can better sell the agenda of the ruling class: a conspicuously clueless aristocrat who wears his self-interest on his sleeve or a skilled technocrat who can speak the language of ‘the people’ while serving these same interests? A quick speculation is, with the internal contradictions embedded in current historical / economic circumstance, a Romney Presidency would sink the fortunes of the ruling class for at least a generation. And the downside, in which a lot of poor and working class people would disproportionately suffer from such an outcome, faces the fact that we are several decades into declining circumstance—at what point is open rebellion forced?
This last question isn’t rhetorical—as a participant in the Occupy Wall Street actions this past week, the outsized police presence was testament to a ruling class in a developed stage of panic. I’m referring not just to the number of police but also to the defensive infrastructure that was built to protect the ruling class institutions in lower Manhattan—fortifications fifteen deep around the Stock Exchange and the Federal Reserve Bank. And while it is unwise to frame reality by one’s political opposition, some in the ruling class are obviously taking the threat of effective rebellion seriously. Barack Obama can apparently pass warm gas about ‘inclusion’ and his liberal and progressive minions seem to forget his actual policies. And when Mitt Romney says straightforwardly what Barack Obama’s big-money supporters believe it is used as a political ‘gotcha’ against Mr. Romney rather than the education in class struggle that it is.
Democrats and their supporters seem to want to continue their role of recent decades as constructive functionaries in a system designed to facilitate and perpetuate the fortunes of an economic elite, a ruling class, which has found ever more effective ways of siphoning off the wealth created by working people and nature while increasing their domination and control over our lives. The results are the largest and most oppressive prison system in the world, the greatest concentration of wealth in the fewest hands in human history, the largest and most deadly military in human history, used to promote the fortunes of the ruling class, and environmental catastrophe.
Discussion of taxation and dependency, which was the departure point of Mr. Romney’s comments, presupposes just, or at least politically defensible, income distribution. And income distribution is an outcome of political ‘negotiation,’ not a fact of nature. The argument put forward by Mr. Romney and his class, with full support from Barack Obama (why else the unconditional bank bailouts?), is that the income it receives is all of the evidence of its social product needed. But all it is evidence of is who won the political negotiation, not who produced the social value. Through his policies Barack Obama has made the rich richer (link) and left liberals and progressives to plea with the rich to give a bit of it back out of ‘kindness.’ Meanwhile, as evidenced by increasing surveillance, militarization of the police and removal of legal restraints, the ruling class is moving ahead with its plans for the next round of ‘negotiations.’
Mitt Romney’s views, and those of his class, are emblematic of the extreme class division that comes with extreme income and wealth division. His lack of political skill is very much a function of his class privilege—he conspicuously has never had to explain himself, witness his refusal to release his tax returns, or his views. But his actual policies would look as much like Barack Obama’s as Barack Obama’s do like George W. Bush’s. Defenders of Mr. Obama’s signature achievement, his scheme to force people to buy health insurance from private insurers that have no intention of willfully paying claims, have Mitt Romney to thank for it—it was his plan. And how would Barack Obama’s unconditional and ongoing bailouts of corrupt bankers have gone over if Wall Street McMoneybags Romney had engineered them? The real choice isn’t what either party is claiming it is. The real choice is between the existing political economy and one that at least stands a chance of working. And neither party is offering that choice.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.