A few months ago I inquired, rhetorically, “does anyone in the healthcare debate really care about health?” Obviously the answer was and is a resounding NO, as the discussion has wholly devolved upon insurance coverage to the exclusion of substantive aspects of health like nutrition and preventive care. Yet not only is the focus of the deliberations far removed from any talk of improving health — now it has explicitly gone to the next level in which it is simply about who will pay and who will profit. It isn’t health care being produced in this process, but rather, health carelessness.
Still unconvinced? Soon we will have the final proof in hand by way of an impending faux healthcare bill, now in conference committee while awaiting a guaranteed presidential signature no matter what it winds up including or omitting. A public option to keep the private insurers honest, as contained in the House version of the bill? Not likely. A requirement that all Americans carry private insurance anyway, backed by the government’s enforcement authority, as dictated by the Senate’s version? Quite likely.
Welcome to America, the new and improved “company town.”
Once this precedent is set, what other mandates will follow? How about no more public schools coupled with compulsory education. Or perhaps the elimination of public airwaves but a requirement that everyone be plugged in anyway. Maybe it will involve forced contributions to fund elections but the elimination of public referendums and any pretense to open ballot access. We don’t have to tread too far down a slippery slope to appreciate the ramifications of this, as recently observed in the New American in an article highlighting the potential unconstitutionality of this mandatory rubric:
“Indeed, a federal government mandate to require citizens to purchase such an expensive consumer item — health insurance often costs more than $1,000 per month — has never been created in U.S. history, even in wartime. As the Heritage Foundation recently asked: ‘Can Congress require all Americans to buy a new Buick every year or pay a tax equivalent to the price of a used LeSabre?’ Such is the same power being claimed on behalf of the healthcare legislation. Here’s what the principle [of] the healthcare mandate means: The federal government could literally require individual citizens to purchase any product or service under such a federal power, provided that the economy or some other alleged public good is served. For example, under such a power Congress could also require all citizens to deposit their cash in certain banks (perhaps to avoid the bankruptcy of the banks).”
Can you say, “taxation without representation?” Revolutions literally take hold under such conditions.
Oh, but healthcare is different, we will likely hear. “This is our best chance to have universal coverage. Once we get that established, then we can work on fixing the rest of the system. Making everyone carry health insurance will be for their own good and will protect everyone’s rights, just like requiring all drivers to carry car insurance does. Are you saying that you don’t want 30 million more people to have healthcare? You’re just supporting the far right by making these arguments, you know.”
Indeed, as Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake has observed, opposition to this unprecedented mandate has served to unite “liberal progressives and conservative libertarians” against an escalating “corporatist control of government that politicians in both parties seem hell-bent on achieving.” Hamsher’s FDL colleague Jon Walker likewise asserts that “private individual insurance in America will become a money-making scam into which Americans are forced to pay,” to which he subsequently added: “It is both immoral and financially reckless to do what the Senate bill does. It uses the power of the federal government to force people to buy private insurance and gives the private insurance companies hundreds of billions in federal funds.” In this sense, the imminent healthcare bill appears to be little more than an elaborate grift — or as Dave Lindorff colorfully refers to it, “rip-offs, screwjobs, and flim-flam.” And yet don’t count on it being struck down: Congress claims for itself an unbridled and broadly-construed power to “regulate commerce,” which the courts generally have let stand.
So where to now? Legal challenges are in the offing and pressure groups are working the phones. But to reduce this to a matter of politics misses the larger point. In essence, we are witnessing the concretization of processes of corporate takeover that have been in the works for decades. The purveyors of these processes know no partisan bounds or party lines. They exert control over the money system, the media, the military machine, and more. They’ve standardized the schools, busted up the unions, controlled access to information, exploded the prison population, effectively cornered the market on food and energy, fomented perpetual warfare, bought the politicians, and toxified the environment. They enjoy the mantle of “upstanding citizens,” but in reality function in many respects as little more than a criminal syndicate — a point made by The Free Dictionary in its casual observation that “recent analyses of organized crime point out its similarities to multinational corporate structure.”
At the risk of putting one’s credibility on the line, it needs to be said. The corporate interests that are steadily working to militarize and privatize every aspect of our lives are fascistic, plain and simple. There’s a reason why the precursors of today’s controllers, including Henry Ford and Prescott Bush, were entangled with the Nazis back in the day, and why they supported Franco’s regime in Spain rather than aiding the peasants and workers fighting for their freedom. This isn’t some “conspiracy theory,” and it isn’t intended to be provocative or salacious — it’s just what happened. And still happens.
Centralized decision-making, enforced Hobson’s choices, the illusion of liberty, authority as a path to security, militarization of the economy and media — and yes, even smaller acts like mandatory corporate insurance in the name of universal healthcare — these are the stock-in-trade tactics of the “power elite” that C. Wright Mills wrote so poignantly about back in the 1950s. Forcing everyone to purchase health insurance is essentially a form of taxation being levied and enforced by the government at the behest of private interests. This all fits with the spirit Mussolini’s outre notion of the Corporate State of Fascism, which, while he was not cognizant of the practices of modern-day corporations, granted primacy to “private initiative … as the most efficient and useful instrument of the Nation.”
Interestingly, Franklin Roosevelt, who himself has been criticized primarily from the right for ushering in fascistic policies, warned of the creeping dangers back in 1938:
“The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism — ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power…. Among us today a concentration of private power without equal in history is growing.”
These themes were broadly echoed in Dwight Eisenhower’s now-famous farewell address to the nation in 1961, in which he warned of a burgeoning phenomenon that would erode liberty if left unchecked:
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
We have not adequately heeded these warnings from former leaders of both major political parties. The result has been an inexorable shift toward an omnipotent “power elite” that has effectively seized the reins of governance, and hence of a large measure of our lives as well. Fascism, the antithesis of any pretense we may still hold toward cherished values of freedom and democracy, isn’t merely something we need to watch for, but a matter that we increasingly are being required to live with. The fact that it often comes under the guise of this “freedom and democracy” makes it all the more chilling, as George Orwell of course noted in his body of work on the multilayered evils of totalitarianism of all stripes.
Okay, so the f-word is out of the bag — now what? Meditating on the ills of coercion and corporatism might be therapeutic to some extent but it does not an alternative make. Tautologically speaking, it is beyond peradventure that you cannot force people to be free, or liberate them at the point of a smart bomb, or impose democracy upon them. You can’t turn people good by deploying practices of torture and punishment as a matter of standing policy. Enlightenment doesn’t come from enslavement, and “arbeit macht frei” is nothing more than a cruel joke. Likewise, the health of the people will not be improved by forcing us to work for insurance companies that will continue their essential monopoly over our access to medical treatment. Health comes through education and opportunity, not by swearing fealty or homage to corporate hegemons and indemnifying their profligacy with mandatory tribute.
Look, only the most heartless sector would want a world in which only certain people are entitled to basic human services like healthcare. But mandating that everyone pay private insurers for it, without a public option, is possibly the most asinine way to go about it. Funny how people can get all up in arms about a potential “government takeover” of healthcare, yet seem to care less about an impending corporate takeover. Well, here’s a newsflash: this bill might be both. And it mirrors similar patterns we’ve seen regarding schools, prisons, banks, the military, security, energy, technology, the media, and politics itself. The government isn’t just beholden to corporate America — it is Corporate America.
At this point, the optimist in me usually tries to push through and offer something constructive and tangible to do in response. You know: community-building, local organizing, people power, self-sufficiency, civil disobedience, nonviolent praxis, opting out, do-it-yourself ethics, mutual aid, positive thinking, holding a vision, creative interruption, highlighting exemplars, and the like. These (and more) are all good strategies, to be sure. But we’re fast approaching a potential tipping point of no return here, and our window of room to organize and strategize seems to be rapidly closing. Left and right ultimately have no deeper meaning in this unfolding drama, and the symbols of both elephant and donkey are equally passe. Today, it’s really more a matter of ostriches and eagles by now, if you catch my drift — and it’s kind of ironic how few eagles there are left in America anymore.
The pending healthcare legislation is merely the latest in a litany of efforts to fundamentally reorder our lives toward a further acceptance of coercion as a legitimate form of influence, and it continues the corporate power grab that has been steadily escalating for generations. The road to hell indeed might be paved with good intentions, and it bears asking whether the road to healthcare is inversely plagued.
You know, I actually feel a bit better having said all of that. Maybe this new healthcare plan has some unintended healing properties to it after all …
RANDALL AMSTER, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College and serves as the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).