Following release of the results of a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University poll showing 29% of registered voters in the U.S. believe armed revolution to ‘protect liberties’ may be necessary the self-appointed political ‘center’ went into full conniption in defense of the established order. Visions of shotgun wielding Tea Partiers were trotted out, racists no doubt, storming the Capitol to roll back the radical progress President Barack Obama and a blameless Congress have made to save ‘our fledgling democracy’ from the predations of empire, the corrupting influence of money in politics, the growing and conspicuous divide between haves and have-nots, the murderous militarism of the war industry and the oppressive machinations of a militarized police. Accurate descriptions of official policies to which the citizenry might legitimately object were prominent in their absence.
Framed as reaction to the ascendance of America’s first black President and the ‘liberal agenda’ he studiously paid lip service to while factually acting in the service of his rich campaign contributors and the corporations they own, missing was where this ‘movement’ fits into recent American history. On the political right the ‘Militia’ movement of armed defenders of American ‘liberties’ arose in the mid-1990s. The economic context was a prior decade of de-industrialization of the heartland attributable to Federal Reserve efforts to ‘tame’ inflation (high interest rates raised the value of the U.S. dollar making industrial exports uncompetitive), military cuts following the end of the Cold War that disproportionately affected the rural middle class and the savage, largely gratuitous mass layoffs by corporate America that were the fashion between 1990 – 1995. While poorly understood and often even more poorly articulated at the time, the ‘New World Order’ against which the Militias were preparing to fight was a rough proxy for the factually ascendant plutocracy now patron and sole beneficiary of official Washington policy.
Unmentioned out of apparent residual embarrassment are left wing revolutionaries, a/k/a ‘terrorists,’ long known to enthusiastically object to economic predation, historical and current police violence against their persons, colleagues, families and communities, wanton militarism in the interests of imperial capital and the class predations of reigning plutocracies—all the policies good liberals support when a credentialed guy in a $3,000 suit explains in liberal-speak the policies of the radical right are ‘liberal.’ To the ongoing humiliation of said professional left, South American Marxists / Leninists and homegrown anarcho-collectivists impede, or at least have in the not so distant past, their corporate fund raising and networking efforts at the annual con-fabs held at five-star hotels in exotic locales where they no doubt enthusiastically discuss the locale and menu of the next year’s con-fab. As anyone receiving a paycheck from the responsible left could tell you, ‘working within the system’ is the only way to ‘get a seat at the table.’
The basis of the current charge these would-be revolutionaries are from the radical right is that over twice as many registered Republicans (44%) as Democrats (18%) claim to be ready to take up arms (27% of Independents join them). Having apparently declined to ask the economic status of the respondents, economic class was pre-determined to be irrelevant to both the poll questions and liberal discussion of them. Beyond this, it seems a reasonable assumption a racist, reactionary right composes some proportion of those ready to take up arms, just as it is represented in the police forces of major U.S. cities, in the military, in senior management positions in large corporations, is regularly welcomed at White House functions and serves on the Boards of Directors of prominent cultural institutions. While the apparent liberal fear is of heavily armed trailer park rednecks swilling beer while trying to reclaim the Ku Klux Klan from the FBI and local police forces, the facts of the existing political economy suggest the revolution of the radical right was won some decades past. So what exactly is it bourgeois commentators are defending?
The ‘centrist’ tale told is of a once dominant culture displaced by history that is now desperate to reclaim its right– the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ world of white privilege being ‘stolen’ by Spanish speaking immigrants, Affirmative Action receiving ‘minorities,’ and feckless academics promoting the interests of ‘others’ over their own heritage and culture. The tale not being told is of a political economy re-dedicated some decades back to capitalist accumulation at any cost that has resulted in wildly skewed income distribution, stagnant incomes for most of the population, regular and large scale unemployment, widespread and increasing economic insecurity, predation by large corporations now exempted from laws and accountability, the diminishment of public institutions and a national state wholly dedicated to serving the tiny elite who now control the country. The liberal tale needn’t be wrong to be irrelevant— while the ‘feelings’ of racist right-wing reactionaries may be strong; there is little possibility they would have actual effect without the wholesale economic dispossession now under way.
One aspect missing in the debate over gun control– the back-story of the Fairleigh Dickinson poll, is gun control advocates only look at the civilian side of the issue. Coincident in recent decades with increasing concentration of political-economic power has been the militarization of the police; the massive build out of incarceration and prisons as capitalist enterprises, the erosion of legal protections from illegitimate state and commercial power, the growth of intrusive surveillance technologies and a shift to formal race and class-based strategies of police repression. On the one hand gun control advocates argue the fear of growing state power is lunatic paranoia while on the other there is no apparent interest on their part in disarming the increasingly militarized state against who the claims of outsized power are being made. This contradiction, combined with the articulated fear of an ideological right accompanied by implicit acceptance of the institutional right, points to the class basis for liberal fears. While ideological right-wing reactionaries are the perceived threat to bourgeois liberals, the facts of daily existence posed by institutional racism, the ‘legal status’ machinations used to exploit the manufactured immigrant underclass, and the rapidly and visibly growing class divide supported by state policies and enforced with state power, affect the lives of more people far more dramatically.
Put another way, it is the reaction of the growing underclass bourgeois liberals fear, not the diminishing material conditions faced by it. But the diminishing conditions are not fact of nature, but of policy. In but one example, Mr. Obama’s assorted efforts to solve the ‘foreclosure crisis’ his administration inherited were unwaveringly designed to screw ordinary citizens, both black and white, for the benefit of outlaw banks. Even so, residual anger over the bank bailouts would have diminished if wages and employment had recovered from depression levels. But wages for most Americans remain well below where they were six years ago and unemployment and underemployment remain at historically high levels. Were this not coincident with the full restoration of the fortunes of the reigning plutocracy at the expense of the broad citizenry these facts could be attributed to ignorance of basic economics on the part of establishment Washington. But this is not the case. The fortunes of the people ‘who matter’ were effectively restored—the economic mechanics for doing so are understood. It is entirely reasonable to conclude Mr. Obama and liberal Democrats (and Republicans) are tools of a predator class not just indifferent to the well being of most Americans, but one that actively benefits at their expense.
Congressional Republicans may more publicly promote economic and political predation under the guise of libertarian ‘freedom,’ but it is Democrats since President Bill Clinton (Jimmy Carter actually) who have more effectively promoted them. And therein lies at least part of the reason for current political angst. Beginning in 2006 when the Democrat majority was returned to Congress to the election of ‘liberal’ Democrat Barack Obama to the Presidency in 2008, the American electorate offered a rebuke of the murderous overreach and increasing plutocratic control of the George W. Bush era. And with it, the opportunity arose, in theory at least, to repudiate those excesses and chart a different course for the nation. Congressional Democrats immediately abdicated leadership under the conspicuous lie they needed a super majority to govern and Barack Obama set about codifying the most far reaching abuses of governmental power established by the Bush administration while demonstrating unwavering fealty to the reigning plutocracy. By describing his own policies as ‘moderate Republican’ Mr. Obama made it clear the electoral choice is between degrees of Republican—in contemporary terms the establishment Party of the radical right. When the possibility of affecting political change through the ballot box is removed, no other choice remains but to use other means to do so.
On a number of specific policy issues the feared non-establishment right may be inarticulate but may still have a point. By putting forward a conspicuously inadequate economic stimulus program when he entered office Mr. Obama ‘proved’ to a citizenry more concerned with just getting by than with the arcana of macroeconomic debates that Keynesian remedies don’t work. (Mr. Obama was loudly and repeatedly warned of this outcome at the time). Mr. Obama’s health care program forces financially strapped citizens to buy expensive private health insurance from for-profit companies with little redress for legitimate claims denied and with unchanged probability of economic ruin from exorbitant health care costs. To the Tea Party point, when associated with the increased militarization of the police, mass incarceration and diminished civil rights, this joining of state and corporate interests satisfies Italian fascist Benito Mussolini’s definition of fascism as the ‘corporate state.’ And in contrast to educated, connected, bourgeois liberals, those on the receiving end of illegitimate searches, arrests and incarceration, illegitimate foreclosures, predatory student loans from scam private educators and various and sundry state and commercial predations, have no other choice but to act collectively outside of ‘official’ channels if recourse is to be had. In other words, the question of whether the existing order is worth maintaining depends very much on where one exists within it.
The remaining charge is the existing political order represents the democratically chosen will of the citizenry and efforts to change it outside of (highly controlled) elections are necessarily to force the wishes of an aggressive minority onto the broader citizenry. But the consistent distance between poll results of Americans asked what policies they favor and official government policies belies this claim. From bank bailouts to environmental policies to government works programs to raising taxes on the wealthy to increased funding for education and social insurance, Americans are consistently far to the left of official Washington policy. And the direction of this distance is important—the conceit that calls for radical change are from a loutish right contradicts the reality the greatest distance between actual and desired policy is from the left.
The tactic of official Washington is to misrepresent policies as being in the broader interest while making largely empty gestures on social issues like gay rights. And even this formulation ignores the highly developed technologies for manufacturing consent by ‘private’ media acting for private interests under the guise of faux ‘adversarial’ politics by the one Party state. Far from repudiating George W. Bush’s extra-legal grab of executive power, Democrat Barack Obama has achieved the most radical extensions of it in American history. And as liberals railed at Mr. Bush’s kowtowing to his wealthy constituents, it is this same constituency that is the sole beneficiary of Mr. Obama’s time in office. These are specifically, visibly and unequivocally the policies of the radical right integrated into Western political institutions by ‘both’ political parties over the last forty years. And from those who bothered to ask, this is not the will of the people that is being represented. So again, what is it that liberals are defending?
It is a virtual certainty professional liberals and progressives were sitting behind their office desks only last year when the NYPD (New York Police Department) and Oakland police were beating the crap out of Occupy, firing projectiles into faces at point blank range and parking their motorcycles on the legs of NLG (National Lawyers Guild) observers for daring to protest the ‘liberal’ state / plutocrat nexus. This was in marked contrast to Federal and local police respect for the ‘rights’ of Tea Partiers to carry loaded weapons at rallies for their political ‘opposition.’ FBI and local police infiltration of Occupy, including illegal ‘pre-emptive’ kidnappings and all manner of dirty tricks, was immediate, intense and had the desired effect of creating paranoia and mistrust. And those efforts tie historically to the COINTELPRO facilitated murders of black leaders and radical disruption of the legal and constitutionally ‘protected’ rights of (real) leftist and anti-war organizations trying to affect substantive political change in the 1960s and early 1970s. But the grassroots Tea Partiers aren’t responsible for the different treatment they received– the institutions of the radical right in Federal and state government working in the interests of their ruling class patrons are.
By framing the Fairleigh Dickinson poll results in Democrat / Republican and left / right terms bourgeois liberals left unstated, purposely or not, the joined class interests that are at a minimum a relevant aspect of widespread political disaffection. Ironically, Wall Street is well ahead of the professional left in understanding this—any regular reader of the financial press would find many titans of finance incredulous at how narrow, and potentially politically destabilizing, the class interest represented by official Washington, and in particular by corporate Democrats, has become. And straightforwardly, domestic victims of Washington’s plutocrat-friendly policies of recent decades, the unemployed, underemployed, fraudulently indebted, illegitimately foreclosed upon, impoverished and fraudulently arrested and incarcerated, weren’t victimized based on major political Party affiliation– they were victimized based on class. Put another way, middle and lower class Tea Partiers may have more interests in common with inner city socialists, communists, anarcho-collectivists and undocumented immigrants than they have with wealthy Republican patrons of the Tea Party. That this possibility hasn’t already been offered to them is a challenge for the left. And likewise, through unwavering support for corporate Democrats, even if from near-total ignorance of their actual policies, liberals and the bourgeois left promote the interests of the very rich against all who aren’t, including in most cases their own.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York