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Despair You Can Believe In

In ways that will have long-term consequences for most Americans, the policies of economic and political subjugation of the last forty years, particularly of the 2000s, are being carried forward into this decade by an economic and political elite protected and supported by the Federal government. Apparent from the relative calm of the polity is that most people have no idea what the implications of current policies are.

Two examples before diving deeper: the student loan crisis and the policing tactics around the G-8 Summit, recently moved from Chicago to Camp David at Barack Obama’s request. The student loan crisis is generally framed as the case of students who graduate from four-year colleges being unable to find jobs to repay the loans they took out to attend college. The policing tactics, which according to polls are supported by a majority of Americans, are framed as tools to keep order in the face of a permanent group of malcontents intent on forcing their agendas on honest civil servants pursuing the people’s business. The facts tell a different story.

In 2008 the Federal government took over the student loan business from corrupt private lenders as a stealth stimulus that had the added benefit of creating a sub-class of permanently indentured citizens, debt slaves if you will. These loans have funded the massive expansion of for-profit schools that do little in the way of actual education because a majority of their students attend for a few semesters but never graduate. As for helping people find jobs, the U.S. is four years into the third “jobless recovery” in as many decades—there are no jobs for the class attending for-profit trade schools.

With about $1 trillion in student loans outstanding, the question is: what is the government doing? Three answers occur—the first is that the Obama administration is gutting the public education system by shifting resources away from it to the overwhelmingly corrupt for-profit education system. (This isn’t an elite conceit—the public Community College system has successfully supported the portion of the population that wouldn’t have attended four-year colleges with technically oriented education for decades). The second is that student loans, under the impossible-to-get-out-of terms that exist, create a class of people economically subjugated to the point of remaining politically complacent and compliant.  The third is that it supports an economic predator class that satiates itself on the economic misery of others.

Lest these seem like empty conspiracy theories—Mr. Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cut his eyeteeth shifting resources from public education to for-profits schools in Chicago. Second, the onerous terms that force repayment of student loans under all circumstances were well known before the Obama administration chose to take over and expand the business in 2008. Third, were the bank bailouts not evidence enough, the recent 50 state Attorney’s General mortgage “settlement” formally institutionalizes economic predation without recourse (see www.nakedcapitalism.com archives for details).

And Fourth, the recently passed bill signed by Mr. Obama, H.R 347, loosens language around one of a long list of laws designed to make protest illegal in the U.S. The bill reduces the burden of proof required to prosecute protesters who knowingly or unknowingly enter an area protected by the Secret Service or areas and events designated as protected by the Federal government. The best that the ACLU and other legal liberties organizations could say about the bill is that the U.S. was already a police state before the bill was passed.

But my point is not that the U.S. is rapidly becoming (has long been) a police state. My point is that increasingly institutionalized economic predation against U.S. citizens combined with advanced police state powers will make life even more untenable for some fair number of us in coming years. Even if one bought the “law and order” rationale for expanding the police state, the institutionalization of economic predation creates a tiered society where socially destructive behavior receives support and protection from the state while all efforts to end it face the full wrath and repressive power of the state.

For a nation founded on slavery and genocide against the native population, progress is apparently now being measured in terms of how technologically sophisticated the mechanisms of predation and repression can be made. Every American should educate her/himself on the so-called mortgage settlement for insight.

Briefly, the offices of the 50 state Attorneys General who signed the settlement were individually paid large sums of money for doing so. The settlement supposed to be paid by the banks will instead be paid out of a taxpayer funded bailout fund (HAMP) and by non-bank investors (pension funds, etc.). The banks received blanket retroactive immunity for taking very large numbers of houses from people when they had no legal basis for doing so. Because there was no legal sanction for doing this, economic predators, including the banks that just “settled,” now know officially that no acts of economic predation in the future, no matter how egregious, will be prosecuted. And Obama administration officials like Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan have been sent forward to actively misrepresent the terms of the settlement.

But again, my point here is not that institutionalized economic predation is being supported and protected by the Federal (and state) government.  It is that the nexus of economic predation and police state powers has, and will increasingly, destroy the lives of a very large group of Americans. Black, brown and native Americans, along with poor whites, have long been subject to these conditions and have long seen themselves on the wrong side of police power. What has changed is the reach up the socio-economic order deep into the middle class.

Lest readers still be incredulous as to the scale of what is happening, half of the car loans made since the bailouts of the auto companies in 2008 have been sub-prime (the same proportion that led to the crisis). Briefly, Democrat Barack Obama forced tiered wages on autoworkers that has those who build the cars earning half as much as they previously would have while leaving the wages and bonuses of those who make the auto loans untouched. Subsequently, half of the loans made have been to people who are economically marginal (sub-prime) and at risk of not being able to repay them. The executives at the auto companies are once again paying themselves tens of millions of dollars in annual compensation for having rendered their workforces impoverished and their customers at risk of permanent debt servitude.

On the policing side, in anticipation of a rowdy G8 Summit in Chicago Rahm Emmanuel, Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff and current Mayor of Chicago, has continued the practice of recent decades of making all effective protest illegal and subject to heavy legal sanction. Put another way, the patricians of predator capitalism (G8 attendees) are being held remote and protected from the victims of their policies with increasingly restrictive and oppressive police powers. Moving the G8 summit from Chicago to Camp David only increases the impunity that remoteness from social / political consequences brings.

To tie this together, in recent decades the Federal and state governments of the U.S. have facilitated and protected a system of institutionalized economic predation and have built out increasingly intrusive and restrictive police powers to maintain it and to crush resistance. With the economic crisis of 2008 the government at various levels took direct control of an increasing proportion of the means of economic predation and has demonstrated that it will use its power, including creating new and enhanced laws, to force compliance with the often patently illegal terms of public and private creditors under the full coercive and repressive apparatus of the state.

Last, accept this trajectory of despair or do something. A few (tens of thousands) malcontents including labor unions, Occupy Wall Street, immigrant rights groups, artists, musicians, the unemployed, the foreclosed upon etc. plan to celebrate another set of possibilities on Mayday, May 1st 2012. If no march or celebration is scheduled for your town, make one happen. In New York, we meet at Union Square at 4:00 PM and march at 5:00 PM.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.

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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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