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Will 2016 be the year when a new representative of elite wealth assumes the mantle of power, reading to fulfill the Davos claim that seven million jobs will soon be replaced by wageless robots? Or will a political insurgency—be it left or right—finally unseat the standard neoliberal program? Will a faux socialist or a bombastic billionaire be swept into office by the popular tide? If recent history is any guide, Hillary is a lock. If the Great Depression is the better barometer, beware the man who would save capitalism from itself by mitigating its indifference to surplus humanity (i.e., FDR-styled Bernie Sanders). In any event, the new president will encounter a dire state of affairs on entering the Oval Office. As a kind of parting gesture, Wall Street’s “black mascot” Barack Obama recently treated the soporific millionaires of Congress—as well the lumpen proletariat—to one last textbook example of elite deceit about nearly everything that matters. Obama, a superb crafter of bold fictions, has been “polishing the brass on the Titanic” for some time now. Breathtakingly oblivious to the gash in the hull of the ship of state and to the icebergs in its immediate path, Obama used his final State of the Union (SOTU) address to fine-tune the rhetorical constructs he will soon slip into the brisk and heartfelt memoir of another purblind one-percenter. False optimism never sounded so good.
But what of the crumbling empire over which the president presides? What did Obama forget to tell us during his cliché-studded prosody? Here are a few overlooked facts. We don’t live in a democracy, but rather an oligarchy, if Princeton University can be trusted. The one percent now owns as much as the bottom ninety. Fifty one percent of Americans are officially low wage or poor, even though the poverty line is “notoriously inadequate,” as author Paul Street frequently notes. Ninety four million eligible workers are out of the work force, which is why the real unemployment rate hovers around 23 percent. Citizens are now incarcerated or assassinated without fanfare or legality. Immigrants are deported at record rates. Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia are under imperial assault. We dropped 23,000 bombs on Muslim countries in 2015, and an invisible fleet of robotic drones conducts the world’s largest assassination campaign at the behest of the CIA. We are on the brink of being subjected to one of the most odious investor rights agreements in our history. Meanwhile the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has told us the United States needs $3.6 trillion in infrastructure investments by 2020 across schools, transit, bridges, ports, and waste categories, plus plenty more. And if we think to complain about any of this, we are quickly reminded of two powerful deterrents—the fact that we are spied upon daily and are targeted for our dissent. And still Obama has a year to go. One can hardly fathom the state of the union when he cedes the throne, perhaps to Clinton and her scheming sidekick trailing in her sulfurous shadow.
Several presidents have come together to effect the above catastrophes in the service of the one percent. (It takes a village.) Enacting such flagrant violations of the social contract requires considerable rearguard action. Typically one must marginalize the groups you further impoverish, criminalize those who protest, and conquer those that actually attempt to resist. Rhetorical sedatives, legal nuance, and white-label destabilization campaigns generally suffice to accomplish the tasks at hand.
Marginalizing the Ones You Impoverish
Democratic candidates running for president talk a good game. Hillary Clinton’s website says all the right things when it comes to boosting incomes and job creation—just enough information so one can enter a voting booth and with a hazy rationale pull the lever against your own interests. Candidates like Clinton may wax empathetic talking about the poor, but the reality that Democrats and their Republican colleagues have created over the last four decades is deeply different from the fuzzy optimism of their websites. Bernie Sanders is the outlier. He has consistently punctuated the “rigged” system that benefits the one percent at the expense of everyone else. He seems the only candidate willing to launch a real jobs program, rather than tinkering with small business taxes or new lending regimes that will theoretically produce job growth but in the end deliver just the sliver of sound-byte ‘progress’ needed for the re-election campaign.
Aside from Sanders, though, Democrats aren’t interested enough to acknowledge the depth of the American malaise. For instance, that most Americans haven’t got a $1000 in savings. That household wealth is cratering. That workers haven’t seen a raise this century. That one in four children lives in poverty. That 640,000 individuals exited the labor market last month, though these people aren’t counted in the widely reported unemployment rate. This last point reflects the Bill Clinton’s innovative formula for disguising the poor: to be uncounted is to be unseen, and to be unseen is to be non-existent. Clinton also found that the formula worked nicely for welfare reform.
Instead, as we’ll see in Philadelphia this summer at the Democratic National Convention, Clintonites will arrive touting the millions of jobs produced on Obama’s watch. No one will mention what kind of jobs these are, or that they represent our glide path into third-world economic status. If the created jobs are so desirable, why are half of the 24 million citizens that rely on food banks already employed?
Nor do Democrat or Republicans mention that the labor force participation rate—the real mirror of economic fitness—is lower than it’s been since the Seventies, or that 42 percent of eligible Americans are jobless. Can all this be chalked up to their standard mainstream explanation of Boomer retirees, grad school lifers, and baby-juggling moms? Not by a long shot. Many boomers are going into the workforce, and the population is expanding in parallel, among other unmentionables.
Criminalizing the Ones That Complain
Not only have the poor been disregarded by our one-percent oligarchy, elites are once again working to demonize dissent among those who actually have the gumption to speak up. This is what politicians call “building consensus.” Reach across the aisle and get your Republican co-conspirator to sign onto some consensus-building repression. Legislatures in New York and California are fielding groupthink proposals to blacklist Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) supporters. One can easily envision the day when this public shaming will be followed by shaky cam footage of the NYPD tackling BDS supporters, zip-tying their hands, hooding them, and trundling them into the back of a paddy wagon.
Perhaps they will be renditioned to some sparkling new high-security prison as the first victims of President Obama’s newly minted Countering Violent Extremism Task Force (CVE). (Prison courtesy of Bill Clinton’s Nineties era crime bill.) This Orwellian pre-crime addition to Obama’s legacy targets Muslim communities, even though the overwhelming number of recent terrorist attacks in America were carried out by non-Muslims, which the Justice Department admits and then ignores. In France, it takes a brutal terrorist attack to supply the neocon thugs with the political wherewithal to ram through new surveillance and anti-terrorism powers. Our presidential Svengali need only conjure the spectral image of ISIS to implement new liberty-shredding schemes.
Recall too that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents needn’t trouble themselves with “concrete facts” in order to label a citizen a suspected terrorist. Conjecture will do just fine, an approach refined by the new CVE force, another feebly disguised effort to conflate dissidence with terrorism. In this as in other senses, we move in lockstep with our Zionist brethren in the Holy Land. The executive director of HaMoked, an Israeli organization battling the abuse of Palestinians, recently noted the hostile atmosphere in Israel toward pro-Palestinian groups: “Everyone is using this language of traitors and infiltrators. We are marked now as enemies. The general mood is that we might have to look over our shoulders very soon.” Ditto for your garden-variety American metropolis.
Conquering The Ones That Resist
Meanwhile, there are larger insurrections afoot in the resource-rich Middle East. Chaos reigns as oil plunged below the $30 mark, surprising the “experts.” Though rallying back above that threshold before the weekend, more downward pressure is coming. Iran may soon dump 600,000 more barrels of crude into an oversaturated market. Riyadh is now discussing selling shares of Saudi Aramco in a quest to drum up funds as the falling price of crude disembowels its economy. But beltway schemers could care less about cash-poor princelings and are rubbing their paws in happy anticipation of their dream outcome of the collapse of crude: regime change in Moscow and Caracas. Pretty much nobody breaks even on a $26 barrel of crude, especially those so heavily dependent on it, like Venezuela and Russia. Washington would like nothing more than to topple Vladimir Putin and his atavistic Russian nationalism, except perhaps to crush that loathsome lumbering Bolivarian, Nicholas Maduro, barely clinging to power beneath a rotting portrait of Commandante Chavez.
This would be an ideal outcome for the insatiable West, since Russia’s four-month old intervention in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad has botched its plans to cantonize the Middle East. As Pepe Escobar has been saying since 2009, this is another energy war masquerading as a principled humanitarian intervention. Orthodox Moscow and Islamist Tehran are begging the same thing of different Gods: a multilateral peace agreement that preserves Assad and some semblance of the Syrian state. Thus far, Russia is punching above its weight in Syria, rolling back some Daesh territorial gains and immobilizing terrorist factions at night, as mysterious frontline reporter The Saker has noted. Russian, Syrian, and Hezbollah efforts to seal the Turkish border will be a critical test of the Baghdad alliance, since Turkey is the sieve through which truckfuls of takfiri have been flung headlong into the Syrian crucible. Given Washington’s apparent willingness to bankrupt its population chasing its fantasy of full-spectrum dominance, it is hard to envision exactly how the eastern alliance will draw this war to any sort of satisfying conclusion. And why Washington increasingly appears loath to negotiate a peace while Assad is in a strong position. An undying war would only raise the nasty specter of another Afghanistan—one memory Moscow is loath to revisit.
In any event, the Mesopotamian amphitheater has lately convened at least five nuclear nations (U.S., Israel, Russia, France, Britain), with China a potential sixth (see the latter part of this Seymour Hersh essay). This is principally the same hyperventilating cabal that descended on Tehran like a pack of wild hyenas, screeching that it couldn’t be trusted with even modestly enhanced uranium. Evidently, nukes are only fit for unflappable churchgoing humanitarians with names like David, Barack, and Francois. Just look at this picture of the nuclear-armed powers that assembled to strong-arm Iran into submission. Why should this disreputable clique of pale imperialists in bespoke suits be entrusted with nukes more than, say, this guy? Well, isn’t it obvious? He’s wearing a turban and brandishing a Quran. Doubtless he’d mount that B61 gravity bomb like an Arabian purebred and wave his turban in the sky as it descended on Tel Aviv. Consult the end of Dr. Strangelove for the relevant imagery. In any (apocalyptic) event, we needn’t bother mentioning that it is actually the U.S. that is “refurbishing” its nuclear gravity bombs as part of a recent spending spree.
It won’t be long now before the evangelicals emerge from their bunkers to proclaim the onset of Armageddon. It is frankly surprising the warning bell has not yet been sounded. Yet even as the fearmongering Oval Office, musket-packing Tea Partiers, cross-bearing End Timers, and NRA gunslingers ratchet up the general hysteria, against all odds, some modest causes for hope can actually be seen.
Signs of Solidarity
Despite these rueful circumstances, signs are plentiful that in recent years the disgruntled American populace may have finally awakened to its 40-year class war with the one percent. From street-sourced political movements to insurgencies within the rotting corpse of the two-party duopoly, 2016 could prove a definitive year for the fate of the neoliberal project. Think about what’s taken place during Obama’s duplicitous rule even as he has deepened ongoing crises. Occupy made the vocabulary of inequality the lingua franca of the American electorate. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged spontaneously as seemingly ceaseless police violence against African Americans invigorated local communities. The Fight for $15 stunned the corporate establishment as thousands of fast food workers walked out of their jobs to demand a living wage. And lastly, the Sanders campaign has brought socialism back into the mainstream narrative in a manner other than through the tired fearmongering of rightwing fantasists.
The question is, are these uprisings the tip of the spear, or are they solitary flares in a landscape of dead stars? Is democracy done or is it sensing its rejuvenating power? Can these distinct movements—drawn from the common soil of mass injustice—finally coalesce and then burn brightly enough to bring down the elite establishment and its neoliberal orthodoxy? Or will the predictable rising chorus of liberals demanding ‘electable’ and ‘prudent’ candidates smooth Hillary’s path to the White House, where she will further entrench poverty, racism, and war while claiming to heroically uproot them? Will money once again crush conscience? The answer today, as 2016 kicks sluggishly into gear, largely depends on whether you are a cynic or believer in the power of the American demos.