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Two events coincided this week that illustrate the crisis of political economy in the capitalist West—the premature and intensely sad death of Hugo Chavez and the trite idiocy symbolizing the class warfare declared by the rich against the rest of us as the Dow Jones stock index reached its highest point ever. Where Mr. Chavez dedicated (and likely gave) his life to improving the lot of Venezuela’s and the regional South’s poor and building the infrastructure of real economic and political democracy, America’s ‘liberal’ President Barack Obama claimed the right of extra-judicial assassination of the citizenry at his whim while ‘sequestering’ the economic interests of poor and working Americans to bolster the already substantial fortunes of the pirate financiers and industrialists he serves. To the political ‘left’ that voted for Mr. Obama, the contrast is there if you care to see it.
Lest there be confusion around the matter, the richest 1% of Americans own 40% of financial assets and the richest 10% own 80%. The soaring stock market symbolizes the ascendancy of a tiny economic elite with all social resources dedicated to consolidating its power. Remove financial and oil company profits, two industries existing on government transfer payments, tax breaks, business guarantees and occasional wars, all at public expense, along with the nearly $3 trillion in Federal Reserve asset purchases designed to boost the value of wealth ‘owned’ overwhelmingly by America’s plutocracy, and the stock market would be trolling the lower depths of hell. Through their mouthpieces in the capitalist media the wealthy put forward their wealth as fact of nature when it is anything but. As Mr. Chavez was able to demonstrate, from whence it came to where it goes, social wealth can be made to once again serve its social purpose.
A thought unlikely to occur to most Americans is the profoundly anti-democratic sidestep around habeas corpus that Mr. Obama’s claim to the right of extra-judicial murder of citizens implies ties directly to his economic policies. At a time when the U.S. uses murder robots around the globe to slaughter people charged with no crime, launches ‘pre-emptive’ wars of aggression, incarcerates millions of overwhelmingly people of color in for-profit prisons and returns immigrants to countries U.S. trade policies have rendered economically dysfunctional, the economic and political elite here enjoys near complete immunity from prosecution for any of a large number of war, political and economic crimes. As the informed left might have it, the concentration of wealth so facilitated by Mr. Obama’s economic policies ties directly to the concentration of political power amongst America’s plutocracy. While Republican voter suppression efforts appear directly anti-democratic, Mr. Obama’s policies to revive the fortunes of the rich while leaving everyone else to rot renders voting irrelevant to the formation of public policy through the relation of economic to political power.
Although circumstances between Mr. Chavez’s Venezuela and the U.S. differ, Mr. Chavez took his (their) fight to the people of Venezuela and he repeatedly and consistently won majorities of the vote in free and fair elections. The received wisdom in the U.S., a pathetic lie no doubt, is that deference to the wishes of the plutocrats is the prerequisite to fighting in the interests of ‘the people.’ The rank oblivion evidenced in the passions of purportedly thoughtful people in favor of Mr. Obama (‘New’ Democrats—Mr. Obama is but a placeholder) in the recent election supports this capitulation in the quasi-religious hope that if we give the plutocrats everything they ask for they might be nice to us in return.
What is in fact taking place is economic pillage with the full cooperation and facilitation of Mr. Obama and his administration. From banker bailouts to stolen homes, incarceration for profit, student loan penury, wars for oil, profit extracting sick-care and social insurance cuts, class war was launched and is being fought from above. And the non-conflictual economic theories of classical and neo-liberals have rendered cooperation the mechanism of self-subjugation. Against far greater odds Hugo Chavez fought back the forces of global capital, plutocracy and their servants in the oil mafia (CIA) to improve the lot of Venezuela’s poor. What he showed is the straightest path to achieving social justice is to fight for it.
The recurrent theory expressed by people who by now should know better is that Mr. Obama must ‘be made’ to do the right thing. What Hugo Chavez demonstrated is that an actual leader has a political-economic core which only evidence that ideas and policies aren’t working as intended informs and changes. The irony here is that to anyone paying attention, Mr. Obama also has just such a core and it is neo-liberal. Unless his supporters believe him to be incapable of seeing whether or not his policies are working, their continuation suggests they are working just as he intended them to. The difference then is that Mr. Chavez said what he believed and Mr. Obama said what he thought would win elections. Mr. Obama’s policies have consistently deviated from his explanations of them and always in the direction of supporting the ruling class against broader social well being.
As part of the national mythology many Americans, and likely nearly all liberals and progressives, accept the premise that policies designed to boost the fortunes of the already wealthy might be misdirected, but not outright destructive to their interests. After four years of unwavering support for America’s plutocrats and malignant acts toward their economic victims in every actual administration policy—witness his continuing call to cut social insurance programs while 20 million people remain un and under-employed as corporate profits and financial markets soar, Mr. Obama’s faithful retain the belief he is working in ‘their’ interest. In contrast, Mr. Chavez faced a ruling elite in Venezuela with a long history of taking all of the social resources they could get away with taking and there was never the pretense that allowing oligarchs (and / or the U.S.) to put social wealth in their own pockets benefited ‘everyone.’ Put another way, Mr. Chavez effectively articulated this point to those to whom it wasn’t already clear.
Venezuela’s oil wealth may have made this point more clearly visible, but no more true than it is in the U.S. today. Nature didn’t give Barack Obama the ‘right’ to murder U.S. citizens (or anyone else) without trial or evidence—a policy conspicuously against the interests of all who lack the social power to resist it. This point is likely well understood by those who have historically been on the receiving end of coercive (captive) state power—people of color and various permutations of the poor and dispossessed. The economic elite who have so benefited from Mr. Obama’s policies clearly don’t see themselves and their families as potential targets of the state’s newly ‘legitimated’ right to murder. To the extent economic class provides the dividing line between the giving and receiving ends of this power, the relation between it and wealth concentration is made visible. And it is this very line Mr. Obama has helped to so clearly demarcate.
And so to what effect is Mr. Obama’s ‘effort’ to raise the minimum wage if the entirety of his time in office is spent empowering the same plutocrats who resist the idea and are determined to see it defeated? These titans of finance and industry were hobbled and momentarily humbled when Mr. Obama entered office and today they are fully restored, in large measure due to his efforts. The distribution of corporate profits clearly indicates their intent with the lowest proportion in history going to labor and the highest to capital. Liberal economists decry this outcome as they use aggregated data that hides it to argue Mr. Obama’s economic policies have been a relative ‘success.’ Of what benefit is GDP (Gross Domestic Product) ‘growth’ if what it accomplishes is to grow the political power of a ruling elite determined to use it to reduce the political power and economic circumstance of everyone else?
When Mr. Obama reiterated (for the 8,000th time) ‘his’ willingness to cut social insurance programs whose only shortcomings are that corrupt, self-interested executives and capital are bleeding them dry, where were the fools who insisted he was only doing so because he was being forced to by obstinate demagogues in the Republican party?
Tens of millions of people are only a few dollars away from living in the street and cutting social insurance programs will put them there. If his supporters are still dull enough to believe he is being forced into policies he doesn’t really support, why then has he so focused on delivering political power through his economic policies to the enemies of social insurance programs that we, the people, pay for?
To reiterate, there is nothing personal in this critique of Mr. Obama—the problem is his policies and it is his institutional role that is being criticized. By contrast, there is everything personal in calling Hugo Chavez a great leader; a champion of the poor and dispossessed, and ultimately in his institutional role as a facilitator of economic and political democracy that knows it can only exist by keeping its enemies humble.
The Western mythologies of political democracy in the context of economic plutocracy and of ‘natural’ distribution of economic resources was tried in Venezuela and was shown to produce a political economy where a few thrive at the expense of broader society, not from ‘nature’ but from the deliberate acts of people. The same is true in America today. With Hugo Chavez as a model, my contention is Americans would respond to a leader with a social justice core s/he is willing to fight for. What we don’t need is just one more cynical windbag with the patina of ‘liberal’ shilling for the military oil banker mafia.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.