“When the waters poured into Atlantis,
the rich men still screamed for their slaves.”
Bertolt Brecht, “Questions from a Worker Who Reads”
The brief mutiny is over. The Democrats, who control Congress, have pushed through the outrageous Paulson swindle, giving an initial $700 billion or so to Wall Street. The Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, lobbied hard for the bankers’ bailout, according to reps and senators receiving his phone calls. Obama voted for the package of course, and so did the vice presidential Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.
I never heard anyone speculate that Obama might, against all the odds, rally to the “No to Bailout” cause. His Yes was pure. He told reporters in Clearwater, Florida last Wednesday that “issues like bankruptcy reform, which are very important to Democrats, is probably something that we shouldn’t try to do in this piece of legislation.” In addition, he said that his own proposed economic stimulus program “is not necessarily something that we should have in this package.”In the crunch, almost invariably, he does the wrong thing and in my opinion he always will. Just count out the moments of surrender: reauthorize the Patriot Act? Aye, from Obama. The “class action fairness act”, sought by Big Business for years. Aye from Obama. Capping credit card interest rates? No-o-o from Obama. FISA? Aye from Obama. With Robert Rubin at his side, his bailout vote was as sure as that of the harlot of the credit card companies, the six-term senator from Delaware, Joe Biden.
Normally, in these elections, one tries to peer forward into the future, to alert people to impending villainies, still dim in contour. Rare is it to have corrupt servility to the Money Power so brazenly displayed by the Democratic ticket merely a month before the ballot. We have just witnessed a class struggle where, for once, we had a huge popular coalition stretching all the way across the political spectrum. The coalition was there; the anger was there; the timing was perfect. “ The great appear great to us,” James Connolly wrote, “only because we are on our knees. Let us rise.” This time it was Paulson who was on his knees. Could not Obama, at this moment of extraordinary power, have extorted extraordinary concessions from these frantic bankers? He could, but he fled the task. Could not Bernie Sanders have filibustered the bill? Of course not. That would have taken the Vermont blowhard “independent” far beyond his ritual bluster.
Obama’s designated role in these fraught times is to de-fuse, not inspire; to urge the angered crowd to remain calm, and disperse quietly, not to march upon the citadel, pitchforks upraised.
But somehow Obama is not the focus of the liberals’ fury. From many of the pieces pouring into my inbox, I can scarcely deduce that he was even at the scene of the crime. Sparing Obama, the left and the progressives reserve their venom for the Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.
I read more than one piece from these gallant leftists hailing Biden for his fine performance. Biden! This is a man with six full terms of infamy in the US senate. Find a Palestinian kid maimed from a cluster bomb, and you’ll likely read “Greetings from Joe Biden” scrawled on the casing. Find someone crippled from 25 per cent interest charges on credit card debt, and you’ll espy “Best wishes, Joe Biden” scrawled across the front of the bill. He’s a poster boy for all that is foul about the Democratic Party.
In these last days I’ve been scraping around, trying to muster a single positive reason to encourage a vote for Obama. Please note my accent on the positive, since the candidate himself has couched his appeal in this idiom. Obama invokes change. Yet never has the dead hand of the past had a “reform” candidate so firmly by the windpipe.
Is it possible to confront America’s problems without talking about the arms budget, now entirely out of control? The Pentagon is spending more than at any point since the end of World War II. In “real dollars” – admittedly an optimistic concept these days — the $635 billion appropriated in fiscal 2007 is 5 percent above the previous all-time high, reached in 1952. Depending on how you count them, the Empire has somewhere between 700 and 1,000 overseas bases.
Obama wants to enlarge the armed services by 90,000. He pledges to escalate the US war in Afghanistan; to attack Pakistan’s sovereign territory if it obstructs any unilateral US mission to kill Osama bin Laden; and to wage a war against terror in a hundred countries,
Obama’s liberal defenders comfort themselves with the thought that “he had to say that to get elected.” He didn’t. After eight years of Bush, Americans are receptive to reassessing America’s imperial role. Obama has shunned this opportunity. If elected he will be prisoner of his promise that on his watch Afghanistan will not be lost, nor the white man’s burden shirked.
After eight years of unrelenting assault on constitutional liberties by Bush and Cheney, public and judicial enthusiasm for tyranny has waned. Obama has preferred to stand with Bush and Cheney. In February, seeking a liberal profile in the primaries, Obama stood against warrantless wiretapping. His support for liberty did not survive its second trimester; he aborted it with a vote for warrantless wiretapping. The man who voted to reaffirm the awful Patriot Act declared that “the ability to monitor and track individuals who want to attack the United States is a vital counterterrorism tool.”
As a political organizer of his own advancement, Obama is a wonder. But I have yet to identify a single uplifting intention to which he has remained constant if it has presented the slightest risk to his advancement. Summoning all the optimism at my disposal, I suppose we could say he has not yet had occasion to offend two important constituencies and adjust his relatively decent stances on immigration and labor-law reform. Public funding of his campaign? A commitment made becomes a commitment betrayed, just as on warrantless eavesdropping. His campaign treasury is now a vast hogswallow that, if it had been amassed by a Republican, would be the topic of thunderous liberal complaint.
In substantive terms Obama’s run has been the negation of almost every decent progressive principle, a negation achieved with scarcely a bleat of protest from the progressives seeking to hold him to account. The Michael Moores stay silent. Abroad, Obama stands for imperial renaissance. He has groveled before the Israel lobby and pandered to the sourest reflexes of the cold war era. At home he has crooked the knee to bankers and Wall Street, to the oil companies, the coal companies, the nuclear lobby, the big agricultural combines. He is even more popular with Pentagon contractors than McCain, and has been the most popular of the candidates with K Street lobbyists. He has been fearless in offending progressives, constant in appeasing the powerful.
So no, this is not an exciting or liberating moment in America’s politics such as was possible after the Bush years. If you want a memento of what could be exciting, I suggest you go to the website of the Nader-Gonzalez campaign and read its platform, particularly on popular participation and initiative. Or read the portions of Libertarian Bob Barr’s platform on foreign policy and constitutional rights. The standard these days for what the left finds tolerable is awfully low. The more the left holds its tongue, the lower the standard will go.
For Republicans and the right wing generally, the first alarm bells rang two years ago, in November, 2006, when the Democrats recaptured Congress. To use the imagery of a familiar disaster, that was when an iceberg sliced through the front portion of the Titanic’s hull. Even so, there was no great alarm on the upper deck and in the first class compartments. The smart money at that time decreed that after the hiccup of 2006, Rudy Giuliani, the great hero of 9/11, would carry the Republican ticket home this year.
The unpleasant phrase “coming financial crisis” did not disturb the 2006 elections at all , even though the really smart money was already figuring that the prophets of doom had a point and the whole show was due to go off the rails. By early spring of this year political analysts were startled to observe that this same smart money was also heading in an unexpected direction – towards a young, back, inexperienced black Democrat. Wall Street bet on Obama early. The K Street lobbyists in Washington did the same. Big aerospace corporations like General Dynamics threw money his way.
Along with the small contributions Obama was hauling in through the internet, a tidal wave of big contributions poured in and continues to do so. Obama promptly renegued on his agreement with John McCain that they each limit themselves to $80 million in public money. He broke all records with a $150 million haul announced in mid October. Nothing more starkly advertises the Republican disaster in 2008 than the party’s funding crisis. In the battleground state of Florida Obama has been running five advertisements to McCain’s one. On Wednesday night the Democrat scheduled a half-hour infomercial costing $4 million and running on three of the major tv networks.
McCain scarcely has a dollar left in his locker. In senate and congressional races across the country desperate GOP candidates beseech the Republican National Committee for money to buy some air time. Some of them even endorse Obama, as the ultimate way of distancing themselves from what they see as a doomed presidential ticket.
After all the talk about the “Bradley effect” and the half-hidden racist vote, analysts and pollsters are beginning to figure that maybe it’s pretty simple: put an unpopular war and the worst economic news in 75 years in the same pot, and you get the most elemental of all emotions inside a polling booth: the lust for retribution, starting with Bush and Cheney and heading on down a long list. The financial crash has been devastating not just for McCain’s chances, but for the Republican Party
Nervous liberals are perennially terrified that the Brownshirts will soon be marching down Main Street. Now they worry that economic depression will spark to life a right-wing populist counter-attack, headed by Sarah Palin who is already cutting herself loose from McCain and setting herself up as the Jeanne d’Arc of Republican Renaissance in the next four years.
On her current form, she’s not up to it. She’s just not smart enough to get beyond canned one-liners to the rubes. And how much of a constituency will she really have, beyond the born-agains? In the late 1960s Nixon’s speech writers had the easier task of delighting a solidly confident blue collar constituency, many of them with good union jobs, with their sallies against pointyhead professors , liberal judges and unwashed hippy scum. That constituency is long gone, along with the jobs.
When the Republicans have pulled themselves together they’ll muster up some new demagogue of the right, to run a right-wing populist campaign of the sort Palin has been too dumb to mount.
“I don’t know what more we could have done to win this election,” John McCain said in his concession speech in the Biltmore hotel in Phoenix. Actually there was a lot he could have done. He ran an awful campaign. Obama is now enveloped in an aura of inevitability, but let us raise a toast to that vital ingredient, luck. Never was there a luckier man in the timing of economic collapse, the ultimate October surprise.
It could have been different. At the end of August, the gods seemed to be smiling on McCain. Hurricane Ike kept Bush and Cheney out of the Convention in St Paul. Palin’s surprise nomination nullified Obama’s bounce and seemed to invigorate McCain. Then the economic crisis intensified. At this fraught moment, with Obama keeping a cautious profile, McCain could have seized the initiative. Even after the stumble about the fundamentals of the economy being sound, the senator could have recouped by saying that he was returning to Washington to lead the opposition to the bailout. McCain could have gone into the first debate attacking Obama for his support of the bailout. He could have sent Palin round the country denouncing Wall Street greed and predatory bankers, as she did in her debate with Biden. Unlike McCain, Obama and Biden, Palin had no Wall Street cash showing in her campaign war chest, filled only with virtuous mooseburgers.
Unfortunately for McCain, Palin’s brain wasn’t filled with much useful material either. She helped McCain keep the Christian fundamentalist vote. She helped lose him the vital suburban vote.
With Phil Gramm whispering in his ear and McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis’ lobby shop still on Fanny Mae’s payroll, McCain chickened out. He played a feeble role in Washington and voted meekly for the bailout, and, thereby, threw away the chance to put Obama on the defensive.
This election advertised not only McCain’s stupidity but also the absence of an effective third force in American politics, at a moment when the credibility of both parties and of both major candidates is open to sweeping challenge. Voters were disgusted with the entire system and the direction the country has taken. Disapproval of Bush and of the Democrats running Congress has been at the same high level. Obama and McCain share many positions, starting with the bailout and continuing with endorsement of a belligerent foreign policy from Georgia to Iran, total fealty to Israel and a ramp-up of the doomed Afghan campaign.
Ralph Nader is a man for whom the economic crisis has come as total vindication of everything he has been proclaiming for decades about the corruption of Wall Street, the ties between Wall Street and Congress, the economic sellouts of Clinton time, from free trade deals to the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Yet, Nader had no party and hence suffered from hugely diminished political purchase on everything, from volunteers to finance to media presence, at a moment when his message could have resonated hugely with the furious and fearful electorate. The political groups and coalitions that rallied to Nader in 2000 were all shadows of their former selves. Eight years of Bush have pushed the environmental and labor lobbies back into the Democratic Party, where their voices are inaudible and political influence scarcely visible to the naked eye. Obama pounds the drum for nuclear power and hugely toxic coal-to-gas conversion plants and campaigns through the industrial wastelands of the Midwest, while remaining more or less mute on “free” trade.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai three Indian officials have already stepped down. Out goes the top federal official, the minister for home affairs, Shivraj Patil. He says he should have done better and popular indignation ratifies his judgment. Since Mumbai is in the state of Maharashtera, the chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, has offered his resignation and his number two, R.R.Patil, has quit. Desmukh says he “accepts moral responsibility”. Remember that Maharashtra, at a hundred million, has a third the population of the United States, so we’re talking about very powerful officials.
Given the ratios of destruction it’s as though Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Governor Pataki, Bush’s National Security Advisor (Condoleezza Rice) and heads of the CIA, NSA, and FBI all quit or at least tendered their resignations on September 12, 2001, which of course none of them did. Like the tribe of Ephraim in the Book of Judges, (12:5-6) which couldn’t pronounce the word “shibboleth”, the tongue and palate of an American politician or bureaucrat simply cannot handle the phrase “moral responsibility”, at least as a condition applying to themselves. Remember that the tribe of Gilead made everyone trying to cross the Jordan after the battle say the word “shibboleth”, and those who couldn’t were put to the sword. The best the Ephraimites could do was “s-s-siboleth”. A good lesson here. Line up the high-ups, and make them say it. “I accept mowal wes-,wes-wes,” and down comes the axe.
It’s hard to stop people rowing ashore and hard to fathom that a well armed man clambering onto the jetty is not part of some spectacular put on by the Indian tourist bureau. . I’ve stood looking down at the spot by the Gateway to India where the gunmen probably stepped ashore. Actually, on that date, March 26, 2005, I’d been warned to expect a personal assault. It was Holi, a day when rowdy fellows pelt you with dye and balloons filled with stones in honor of spring. I wandered out at dawn and soon met people whose faces and clothes were blotched with red and green stains. Probably,last week, right up until the bullets started spraying, tourists and locals thought it was all some masque put on by the Indian tourist bureau.
The brain initially retranslates the unexpected as some minor aberration of normalcy. Look at what happened in February, 2003 in Key West, on the actual day Ashcroft and Riggs announced we’re One Nation Under Orange Alert. Four uniformed fugitives from Cuba’s navy patrol made landfall on the Homeland, passing undetected by southern Florida’s vast flotillas of Coastguard and Navy vessels.
The four tied up their 32-foot fiber-glass cigarette boat (sporting the Cuban flag and containing two AK-47s, 8 loaded magazines and a GPS finder tuned to the coordinates of the US Coastguard station) on the southern shore of Key West, at the Hyatt Resort dock.
Then, clad in their Cuban army fatigues (one had a Chinese made handgun strapped to his hip) they wondered about, marveling at the serene emptiness of the evening streets, (so unlike bustling Havana, their leader said later) looking for a police station where they could turn themselves in. Had they been Terrorists there were plenty of rewarding targets within a strolling distance, including a major surveillance center for the Caribbean and Latin America, run by US Southern Command, also a US Navy base, plus of course Key West’s extensive literary colony. The Cubans could have wiped out half the authors on the New York Times’s bestseller list with a single salvo. You can bet the head of the Coastguard, not to mention the head of Southern Command, wouldn’t have been able to say “mo..mo.. mowal…”
A month after he won the White House Barack Obama is drawing a chorus of approval from conservatives who spent most of this year denouncing him as a man of the extreme left. “Reassuring”, says Bush’s master-strategist, Karl Rove, of Obama’s cabinet selections. In Murdoch’s Weekly Standard, mouthpiece of the neocons, Michael Goldfarb, reviewed Obama’s appointments and declared happily that he sees “nothing that represents a drastic change in how Washington does business. The expectation is that Obama is set to continue the course set by Bush in his second term.”
But on the liberal-left end of the spectrum, where Obama kindled extraordinary levels of enthusiasm throughout his campaign, the mood is sour. “How… to explain that not a single top member of Obama’s foreign policy/national security team opposed the war?” Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, asked last Monday. She went on, “For Obama, who’s said he wants to be challenged by his advisors, wouldn’t it have made sense to include at least one person on the foreign policy/national security team who would challenge him with some new and fresh thinking about security in the 21st century?”
More mouldy cabbages are being hurled at Obama’s picks at the Pentagon, starting with the familiar visage of Robert Gates, already in occupation of the top job, having been put there by George Bush Jr, to replace Donald Rumsfeld. Winslow Wheeler, for many years a senor Republican staffer in Congress, has a solid reputation as one of the best-informed of all the observers of that vast sink hole of fraud and waste, the US Defense Department.
During Gates’ tenure, Wheeler complains, “things have only gotten worse. What about Obama’s Nayional Security Advisor, former US Marine General Jim Jones? “He is a man of great stature, physically and figuratively, in Washington,” Wheeler says tartly. “He is a Washington ‘heavy’ but if you look at his record, nothing much ever happened. Things went south in Afghanistan pretty rapidly when he was supreme commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan. When he was Commandant of the Marine Corps, a lot of the marines’ overpriced underperforming hardware programs were endorsed and continued happily along. He seems to have been mostly a placeholder when he had these very senior and important positions.”
One striking feature of these complaints is that if the complainers had their suspicions about Obama during the campaign, they kept their mouths firmly shut. Across eight presidential campaigns, since Jimmy Carter’s successful run in 1976, I’ve never seen such collective determination by the liberal left to think only positive thoughts about a Democratic candidate. Indeed, some of the present fury may stem from a certain embarrassment at their own political naivety. In fairness to Obama, beyond the vaguely radical afflatus of his campaign rhetoric about “change”, Obama never concealed his true political stance, which is of the center-right. In every sense of the phrase, he can say to his left critics, “I told you so.” And indeed he did.
Call any Jewish friend across the few days and the degrees of separation from someone financially devastated by Bernie Madoff are often only one or two. One rich Jewish friend in New York volunteers that because of some intricate family dispute his own money hadn’t been parked at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC. On the other hand his uncle had woken up the morning after Madoff’s arrest to discover that the $40 million he’d entrusted to Bernie was gone forever, along with the multi-million pension fund of his workforce, which he’d also entrusted to Madoff.
It’s not just ruined heiresses in the Palm Beach Country Club now faced with the prospect of dividing the contents of the Whiskas can into two equal portions for mistress and cat, it’s academics on Ivy League campuses, doctors in Santa Monica, rich people from Boston to San Francisco to the West Side of Los Angeles finding their retirement nest eggs or charitable trusts wiped out overnight.
In terms of financial and psychological impact, Bernard Maddow’s $50 billion heist certainly ranks as a major ethnic cleansing here in America, a hugely traumatic event for American Jewry. Of course Madoff had clients of every creed and nation, but he made a specialty of trolling for Jewish money. I asked a Jewish woman I know here in California if any in her circle had taken a hit. She looked at me tremulously, shaking her head, on the edge of tears. Though no one was in immediate earshot, she whispered, “They kept telling me to put my money with Madoff. At that time the entry level was $250,000. I dodged the bullet. Some of my friends didn’t. They’ve lost everything. This is Kristallnacht Two.” Her fear and horror would scarcely have been diminished if she’d heard what a perfectly nice young person had remarked to me earlier, apropos the Madoff affair: “Now the rich people will know what it’s like.” On the larger canvas, what exactly separates Madoff’s operation from those of the banks rewarded for their shady follies by a $700 billion bailout? Just like Madoff, the banks finally had to admit that all their public financial statements were false, that the supposed assets were worthless. The operating assumption of the Ponzi scheme is that the tide will always rise, that old investors can be repaid by the infusions ponied up by the fresh recruits. For the past twenty years the entire American economy has become—to quote Bernie’s succinct résumé of his business to his sons —“a giant Ponzi scheme,”.
Uncle Sam is the biggest Ponzi operator of all, with the added magical power denied Madoff (unless forgery was among his talents) of being able to print money at will. CounterPunch tip of the week. Wheelbarrow stocks. Buy ‘em while the price is right. Soon Americans will be needing wheelbarrows to put the money in to go shopping. A vast new wheelbarrow industry could be part of Obama’s recovery plan. Collapsible wheelbarrows for the soccer moms to get in the back of the Volvo. Electric-powered wheelbarrows. Hybrid wheelbarrows from GM. Gold-plated wheelbarrows from the Defense sector.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org