Diverse Signs of American Decay and Decline

Strictly speaking, kaleidoscope refers to a variegated change of pattern or scene. My usage here is rather that of a uniform systemic trend taking many different forms, a kaleidoscopic mixture of policies and practices marking an underlying consistency of militarism, war, repression, illegality, favoritism to corporate and banking interests against and to the detriment of the public interest. Yes, fascism-in-the-making, with the hierarchical ordering of the social system, massive surveillance to emasculate the right of privacy and make the public, already so disposed, internalize fears of challenging Authority all in the structural seedbed of widening class-disparities of income, wealth, and power. The militaristic overlay of public policy merely adds to and confirms this heady brew, made more palatable under the flowing banner of liberalism. I shall be blunt: Obama and the Democrats (most of the latter, actively or via complicity, few liberals and progressives standing apart) are liberal proto-Nazis, standing on the edge of the abyss, a bottomless well of antidemocratic ethos and practice.

1. Sanitized Capitalism and Global Hegemony: A Political Culture of Militarism

The New York Times provides, unintentionally, a veritable feast of structural criticism of America’s economy and world posture on which to feed. Let me go back three weeks—issues of militarism, hegemony, inequality, are not time-sensitive, but reach to the foundations of, and serve to characterize, the American polity. Take Dec. 16, for example, in which two stars of its journalistic firmament (and by extension, being The Times, custodians of the national liberal mind), Paul Krugman and Bill Keller discuss widely different subject matter—my kaleidoscope in action: inequality in American economic discourse and analysis, and Putin, Ukraine, and the West, respectively, and yet each reveals a common core of assumptions and implicit diagnostics and solutions based on an orthodox valuing of capitalism against all comers—capitalism coterminous with America, at this historical moment. Call it parochial chauvinism; I call it, on the road to fascism.

Krugman laments the reaction that has set in against assertions that inequality is damaging the US economy and its growth rate. Instead, political discourse focuses on budget deficits and measures of austerity. He faults the latter two as self-defeating, retardant factors quite obviously because of their effect on employment and consumption power. Yet the analysis might just as well have been presented in a black hole or absolute vacuum, without reference, therefore, above all, to capitalism as a system of power. From there, one would immediately ascertain that inequality is integral to capitalism, as seen, e.g., through such factors as class structure, the mechanisms of control and exploitation, having behind them the authority of law, government, ideology, and custom, and, not least, the degree and content of political and social consciousness at all class-levels (upper socioeconomic groups being far more aware of their class interests and quite adept, among other things, through control of the media, at obfuscating issues in order to prevent critical awareness and understanding from developing among working people and the unemployed). Thus, highly pertinent to inequality, and to Krugman’s narrow approach to it as a systemic condition, little to no account is taken of public policy addressed to governmental regulatory functions, the relative proportion of economic functioning dependent on international trade, the place assigned to war, intervention, militarism, and their corresponding funding, and the consequences of the latter for the deficit, and the maintenance–here, starvation and delegitimation–of the social safety net.

One might add the proverbial “etc.” to the foregoing, not only because the list of abusive institutional, cultural, and economic practices is long, but also because all of the above are inseparably connected. For American capitalism even outdistances other national capitalisms in the extremes of its hierarchical class-and-wealth formation and hegemonic goals disguised as internationalism. This is why Krugman’s inequality-factor is pathetically insufficient. It represents merely the surface of widespread, yet to all intents normalized, repression. What is deserving of intensive piercing critical analysis instead is simply taken for granted. Class structure? Notwithstanding the celebration of the “Great Middle Class,” one finds banking consolidation, industrial monopolization, wealth-concentration, deregulation (even using the regulatory process to foster and intensify capital accumulation—under the compliant banner of liberalism), coexisting with, and actually creating, un- and under- employment, falling wages, union busting, a hostile political climate for labor rights, naked exploitation of the defenseless, all essential to the continued strengthening of capitalism.

Authoritative mechanisms of control, an ideology preaching accommodation and submissiveness to all below the ruling groups, in addition, the glorification of war, militarism, and intervention, the creation and disposal of surplus production in the face of want at home—taking all of these, one has the perfect framework for a designedly conceived and constructed class division which is enveloped in the smoke of the great and glorious, all-inclusive Middle Class. Criticism of inequality, Krugman-style, is the gentlest of wrist-slapping imaginable, akin to Zola’s aphorism that rich and poor alike are free to sleep under the bridge at night, yet only the poor avail themselves of the privilege. (Gabriel Kolko used this example in his epoch-making Triumph of Conservatism, which first, among US historians, revealed and grasped the significance of the interpenetration of business and government, regulation the shield behind which business enjoyed the protection and legitimation of government, regulation the essence of self- or non-regulation, as consolidation and monopolization spurted forward–in the name of regulation!)

Although taking into account at least some if not all of the foregoing factors may seem a big order for an op-ed column, these and other factors kept in mind would necessarily prevent escapism into a mythical, sanitized capitalism populated by a vast middle class feeling the pinch of temporary hard times. Yet that is where Krugman stands, feet planted (earning full academic honors) in an antiseptic landscape of hard times, the working stiff of earlier days, the working class now, unrecognized and unrecognizable, along with those still worse off, the unemployed, whose benefits have run out (with no assurance they will be renewed when Congress returns from its recess), many, homes lost, discouraged from further looking for work—and, an inversion of the social scale, the grossest misallocation of wealth in American history.

Inequality, to Krugman, can be eliminated through technical fine-tuning, suggesting still, if he were being candid, that the distribution of wealth, income, and power would stay largely unchanged, only a slight upgrading in the upper two-thirds of the working class, with a permanent underclass not reachable through conventional means. Stated differently, what is the meaning of “conventional means,” other than the rejection of a vital public sector and government shoulder-to-the-wheel efforts at job creation? Barack Obama might as well be Herbert Hoover for all he is doing; already we see people selling apples on street corners. Obama’s perfunctory “cool” has rendered Americans’ suffering nearly invisible. A New-Deal style program of public works, everything from a PWA to remedy crumbling infrastructure, to a WPA to remedy the broken spirits of unemployed college graduates saddled with debt, would not be a bad thing—right now. The cost of how many armed drones for targeted assassination would it take, for mobilizing a corps of dedicated young people who could go into the inner city schools of America for much-needed programs of individual and small group tutorials? (In my university, as the antiwar protest and strike of Spring 1970 was winding down, and those active met in the Student Union to discuss just such involvement, when the animated discussion went beyond the building’s closing time, the university president had police and paddy wagons waiting, arresting all concerned. Still today, militarism, wanton killing, hegemony, all take precedence over societal needs. The mindset remains fixed.)

It is perhaps not Krugman’s fault that he is an economist. What a wretched lot when compared with economists of the past, who were not afraid to question power, and who did not bury themselves in a sea of numbers (Marcuse sagely remarked, “Mathematics qua mathematics, is inhumane,” the emphasis on the last, to show how quantification rode roughshod over human suffering) in efforts at protection and self-promotion lest their evidence and analysis expose the workings and myriad dysfunctions of capitalism. Hence, inequality—not to single out Krugman, who is quite typical of perhaps the second most notorious profession (apologies to prostitution, which in light of the military, intelligence, and corporate communities, deserves better)– is not, and cannot be, a moral question for economists. For, beyond their trained incapacity to feel the suffering of others, any moral admission of capitalist failings would lead to the criticism of capitalism per se—the ticket to academic oblivion, with no return.

One stays within, even exalts, the dominant frame of reference and gingerly moves some of the chess pieces around, careful not to disturb king, queen, rook, knight, or even bishop, the last-named coming in handy through contributing to the proper spirit of reverence for the overall system, especially coupled with the knight, able to break heads not already bowed. Krugman fails to recognize, pointing to deregulation and deficit reduction as the two culprits principally accounting for the system’s lack of sufficiently accelerated recovery, that both are interrelated, rock-bottom economic strategies to ensure the status-quo maintenance if not also intensification of class-structure inequities. Deregulation yields corporate giantism, deficit reduction yields the smashing of the social safety net: Capitalism emerges in all of its hierarchical splendor, opposition to which is not to be effective through cosmetic patchwork (he now and throughout his writings is strangely bereft of fundamental solutions, even within capitalism, such as massive public works, as in the New Deal, or decisive antitrust remedies for the financial and industrial sectors).

My New York Times Comment on Paul Krugman’s article, “Why Inequality Matters,” Dec. 16, follows:

Prof. Krugman, after a tortuous discussion of inequality which never once mentions the working class or the poor, merely, as usual, the middle class, the 90%, making a mockery of the actual lines of stratification, and its consequences for education, employment, living standards, he then hoists himself on his own petard with the absurd charge directed to others that applies so aptly to himself: “the desire of some pundits to depoliticize our economic discourse, to make it technocratic and nonpartisan.”

He does exactly that. How better depoliticize our economic discourse than never refer to CAPITALISM, its systemic attributes, its internal power structure, its incumbent needs in foreign policy, and, pertaining–as do the others–specifically to America, the huge elephant in the room producing massive distortions in the system, militarism and outlandish military outlays? How better make it technocratic and nonpartisan, than by the imprecision of the discussion of inequality by being intellectually too lazy or unwilling to connect deregulation and austerity, as though fortuitous or by coincidence? And by implying the blackhearted Republicans and shining-knight Democrats, when BOTH are equally culpable, a bipartisan consensus, in maintaining the existing structure of power?

Krugman, c. 2013, personifies the field of economics, a field that would hardly pass muster a half-century and more ago, when economists were not afraid to discuss class and power.

Turning next to Keller (more briefly), one queries, what does Krugman’s rather naked apologia for capitalism have in common with Keller’s attack on Putin, Russia, and their presumed rejection of the West? Although the issue here is Putin and Russia’s resistance to Ukraine’s joining the European Union and protesters’ desire to embrace its values, it is not hard to see that, for Keller, the West, beyond the EU, is really America in its capitalistic radiance of opportunity, freedom, and—the particular litmus test of democracy—honoring gay rights, which Putin and other Russians quoted detest and oppose. For Keller, again particularly the latter, on which his article appears transfixed, the position on gays is seen as revelatory of an Old-Russia mental slough, backwater of prejudice, zealously puritanical. Strangely, it’s also seen as revelatory of Stalinism (perhaps, in his book, Putin’s alter ego), and hence, not Mother Russia so much as modern repression. Either way, Putin is sunk.

I cannot value gay rights as the defining moment in democratic world history, especially in holding that it trumps, when evaluating US society, a record of intervention, armed-drone assassination, paramilitary operations for counterrevolutionary ends, as though secondary considerations, nor for that matter, the structure of impoverishment, alienation, consumerism, or false consciousness. But that is an issue on which there can be honest differences, provided, of course, such discussion is predicated on the demand there be an end to all social discrimination and full commitment to civil liberties. Here I would say that, all things considered, neither Russia nor America is the Promised Land, democracy meaningful to human potentiality and the enjoyment of intellectual and political freedom not obstructed by the management of ideology and political culture. Keller is so bent on demonizing Putin that he cannot see that Obama is no Mandela, no Dr. King, no Paul Robeson, but an opportunistic, self-serving, prevaricating political figure anxious to ingratiate himself with the upper reaches of capitalist wealth, arrogant, with no regard for the people who elected him, and, to boot, totally camouflaged, hidden in, surrounded by, absolute secretiveness—the archetype of one who has something to hide. I doubt that Putin is any worse.

My NYT Comment on Keller’s op-ed piece, “Russia vs. Europe,” same date, follows:

Mr. Keller, try as he may to make Putin into Stalin, Russia into the Soviet Union, succeeds instead in sounding, along with POTUS, the drum beats of, if not war, then confrontation. US hegemonic claims have so saturated the atmosphere as to re-create a Cold War climate, perhaps for no other reason than to ward off the decline of American capitalism in a, now, multipolar global power-environment, not to our liking or benefit. Putin’s intervention to stop Obama’s bombing of Syria hurts the sensibility of superiority of the US. But illustrative of US policy-thinking, -planning, and military execution, Russia is the convenient scapegoat, despite its significant capitalistic and mixed-economy elements, for unadorned Communism, to be used as backdrop and atmosphere for Obama’s more serious objet de guerre: CHINA.

In the US mindset, which Mr. Keller may well share, Russia and China are twin, inseparable enemies, representing everything we detest and, perhaps underlying that, fear. In his column, Mr. Keller makes gay rights the sine qua non of freedom, and that which proves Russia’s authoritarianism. O.K. But in my book, Obama’s drone assassinations, the huge military budgets dwarfing the social safety net, the obscene maldistribution of wealth in America, are far more indicative of a failed social order than the status of gays, or even, his other beef, the puritanism of social values.

WHY must America remake the world–period, but also, over in its own image?

2. Self-Degradation of Liberalism: Endless Variety of Sameness

Coming to the present, the first week of 2014, we see further fragments of policy and opinion reinforcing the view of America locked into a framework in which such seemingly widely disparate topics—financial regulation, uncritical support for Israel, and judicial misdeeds of prosecutors—define a coherent ideology and practice contradicting professed standards of democratic governance. On the first, the departure of Gary Gensler from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, one can speculate about the reasons thereof—personal or driven out, but where speculation is unnecessary is the opposition alike from Obama and Wall Street about Gensler’s zeal for regulation. The latter is self-evident, and in Wall Street’s case, highly vocal. Gensler knew the ropes, as an ex-Goldmanite, and hence a formidable opponent of banking operations, including the marketing of dubious exotic financial instruments. Obama never addressed the financial crisis, except to encourage further banking consolidation and continued irresponsible activities. Like Elizabeth Warren, Gensler became a public servant when that was the last thing Washington wanted or would tolerate.

My New York Times Comment on Ben Protess’s DealBook article, “Regulator of Wall Street Loses Its Hard-Charging Chairman,” Jan. 3, follows:

Gensler’s departure from CFTC will be sorely felt, precisely because the Obama administration has made a mockery of regulation. Not only the financial sector, but throughout the range of public policy–a shield for megabusiness to perform its self-regulation in a government-legitimated framework, i.e., non-regulation in terms of the public interest. Liberalism has geometrically degraded itself since the New Deal and FDR, who, when challenged by Wall Street, fairly bellowed, “and I welcome their hatred!” Obama appears as a patsy for what Veblen termed the Vested Interests, except that, rather than being soft, POTUS actually believes in and presses hard for wealth-concentration leading to the formation of the American underclass.

I salute Gensler for his policies–it takes an ex-Goldmanite to know the racket, lobbying techniques and all–and also his personal make-up, from marathoner to stay-at-home dad, a combination of substance and character utterly unknown in, indeed purged from, Washington these days. No offense to pygmies, but present-day regulators, and their Boss, are spiteful, cynical little men and women grovelling at the knees of extreme wealth–Democrats and Republicans alike, two peas in the same pod of antidemocratic favoritism.

That is why Elizabeth Warren earned the hostility of Obama and Geithner alike, and why POTUS marginalized the one person of integrity who might have averted the financial crisis, Mr. Volcker. Shame on Obama, Treasury, Congress.

American support for Israel surely goes beyond residual feelings of guilt for allowing the Holocaust to occur and continue (e.g., by joining forces with Europe after the invasion of Poland, or later, the siege of Stalingrad), admiration, post-war, for suffering humanity, here, Zionism qua a crusade of the displaced persons for security in a new land, or devoted respect of Judaism as a foundation stone of religion in the West. Some of this may be true (on the level of sentiment, and political expediency in attracting American Jewry), but the US pro-Israel position has always been firmly grounded in realpolitik, at first a bastion or forward line in the Cold-War confrontation with the Soviet Union, relatedly, preservation of the Middle East as a sphere of influence centered on the world’s oil supply, and then, access to oil itself, freed from Left popular forces and the confiscation of US oil properties.
But as Israel developed, and especially proved its military mettle to the US in dislodging and forcing out the indigenous Palestinian populace, along with a general posture of identifying with conservative regimes (apartheid South Africa, various dictators in Latin America) and somewhat rigidly following the American lead in international relations, concomitant with abandonment of a socialist-kibbutz vision in domestic organization in favor of becoming a Mossad-style world player and nuclear-armed military power, the US rejoiced at the special relationship. Ideologically, Washington gives away nothing. This was love at first- or at least second-sight, testified from early on by the close working relations between the military and intelligence communities of the two countries. Now, perhaps more than ever, because of America’s struggle to maintain its global hegemony, it not only sanctions but applauds every abuse of the Israeli government, possibly acting as enablers for inhumane thought and practices which might otherwise not have materialized had such back-up not been provided. In any case, America’s overall policy toward Israel reveals its own ethnocentrism, militarism, and disregard for international law. To see Israel is to see America with clear eyes.

My New York Times Comment on its editorial, “The Ticking Mideast Clock,” Jan. 4, follows:

Israel is determined not to have a settlement. Its characteristic mindset is obviously the militarization of Zionism and, to that end, making Judaism a State Religion. This is very different from the spirit immediately following World War II, when the socialist kibbutz was affirmed as the nation’s model. Judaism does not need Israel. It is a world religion with fundamental moral-ethical principles, all which Israel violates on a daily basis. When the oppressed become the oppressors, we have a profoundly sick psychoanalytic condition, the introjection of the crimes committed against it, now turned outward. That, I submit, has happened. Israel has left Judaism far behind, in its quest for power, superiority, expansion.

American Jewry, once the fountainhead of liberalism and radicalism, reaching a high point in the New Deal, and manifested not only in politics, but culture, and a saving remnant existing into the ’60s, incorporating true humanism and inclusiveness as part of the civil rights struggle (Schwerner-Goodman-Cheney), has degenerated into NeoCon warmongering, reactionary politics and social policy, superpatriotism, in sum, the forfeiture of all that made me proud of my heritage. To criticize now is to be pilloried as a self-hating Jew, whether said criticism is directed to Israel or US global policy–Joe McCarthy with a yarmulke, functional red-baiting by e.g. AIPAC under a different label. I shall continue to affirm my Judaism, wholly separable from Israel.

Finally, I turn to an NYT editorial which praises one federal district court judge for his dissenting opinion over the important question of prosecutorial misconduct, specifically, in not furnishing the defendant all exculpatory evidence, which might demonstrate innocence or the reduction of sentence, something to which the majority appeared indifferent. Both The Times and Judge Kosinski are to be commended, the wider disrespect for civil liberties by the courts themselves—although neither one raised the issue—being symptomatic of the deeper arbitrariness of justice when faced with government-sponsored attacks on the individual. In one case, suppression of evidence, in the wider context now prevailing, the shattering of both the right of privacy and the Fourth Amendment, via NSA’s monstrous program of surveillance—the two, I would argue, being on the same continuum of authoritarian disregard for the rule of law. This is, admittedly, but one more sign of the collapse of democratic government, but it is in the details that one must reckon the rise of fascism, and more especially, strive for the recognition of their interrelatedness.

My New York Times Comment on the editorial, “Rampant Prosecutorial Misconduct,” Jan. 5, follows:

We are all indebted to Judge Kozinski. His plea for judicial fairness–here operationally, the “open file” policy–has far wider ramifications, beyond prosecutorial violations of Brady. If memory serves, Judge Leon also invoked Brady v. Maryland in his 68-page opinion on NSA surveillance, as nailing down the larger trend of USG efforts at silencing whistle-blowers. Prosecutors aren’t the only ones savaging the rule of law. Consider the FISA Court itself, whose proceedings and decisions are done in secret.

The Times, very much on target w/ the editorial, should now expand the moral-legal reasoning to the Espionage Act prosecutions as well. Is not the truth of Snowden’s revelations of Obama Administration criminality itself exculpatory evidence for honoring rather than condemning what he has done? By perhaps carrying Brady a step further, one has reason to turn the tables: Those who suppress evidence and discussion of wrongdoing (POTUS, DOJ, NSA, FBI, FISA) are the real criminals, morally, by demonstrating contempt for law per se, and practically, by suppressing evidence (not only on surveillance, but also, e.g., civilian casualties of drone assassinations) which a democratic public has the right to know…and reign in.

The Times opens the Pandora’s Box of judicial misconduct–not because of decisions with which I disagree, but, as in Judge Pawley’s case, the flip side of Judge Leon’s concern for serving the Fourth Amendment, for disrespecting the law itself.

Norman Pollack is the author of The Populist Response to Industrial America (Harvard) and The Just Polity (Illinois), The Humane EconomyThe Just Polity, ed. The Populist Mind, and co-ed. with Frank Freidel, Builders of American Institutions. Guggenheim Fellow. Prof. Emeritus, History, Michigan State.  He is currently writing The Fascistization of America: Liberalism, Militarism, Capitalism.  E-mail: pollackn@msu.edu.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.