Liberal Pragmatism and the End of Political Possibility


It is worth considering why the profoundly conservative Barack Obama ran on the campaign slogan “change you can believe in?” In pretty much every way he maintained the policy oeuvre of the George W. Bush administration from within an historical trajectory that long preceded him— neoconservative foreign policies combined with neoliberal economic policies, against a half-century of conspicuous failures of both. The slogan promised a different path forward, a break from the serial catastrophes engineered by a distant, aloof governing class that always benefits no matter how badly its programs prove for the rest of us. What is most evident seven years later is the distance between what people voted for and what we got.

With the British vote to leave the European Union, ‘Brexit,’ representing a break from the European political leadership whose policies approximate the economic interests of the entrenched industrialists and bankers they represent, a different trajectory with roots in nineteenth and twentieth century European imperial history has begun. In both the American and European cases the inability to affect political ‘change’ toward some semblance of popular representation risks repudiation in proportion to the intransigence, or incapacitation if you will, of ‘official’ politics through state channels. As with the great tragedies of the twentieth century, unfolding dissolution inexorably ties these leadership classes to the realm of political possibility they maintain to keep themselves in power.

As self-proclaimed political pragmatists assert that the racist and xenophobic political right must be stopped they themselves must be called to account for the Western march hard-right under the twin guises of liberalism and pragmatism. It was liberal Democrat Bill Clinton who so effectively used dog-whistle politics to demonize Black children as ‘super-predators,’ who promoted racially disparate drug laws tied to needlessly punitive, race-centric mandatory prison sentences and who slashed the social spending that minimally sustained the dispossessed classes. And it was Bill Clinton who eviscerated the American middle class by throwing it into engineered ‘competition’ with a global peasantry that was ‘freed’ through NAFTA to labor for U.S. based corporations for pennies a day or to flee northward to be ‘illegal’ human beings.

Liberal Democrat Barack Obama entered office in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and immediately restored the institutions that were widely zen economicsunderstood to have created the crisis— Wall Street, the corporate executive class and inherited wealth, while leaving millions of dispossessed to fend for themselves. Mr. Obama created a series of one-sided ‘solutions’ that empowered predatory bankers to set the terms of home foreclosures, that left the inbred, bailout-dependent ‘management’ of the U.S. auto industry to implement ‘tiered’ (poverty) wages and he imprisoned and deported two million human beings who had arrived in the U.S. from economies intentionally destroyed by the ‘free-trade’ agreements that he continues to support against all evidence of their socially destructive consequences

Following Bill Clinton’s passage of NAFTA Mexico was flooded with subsidized American corn that destroyed the maize-based indigenous Mexican economy. U.S. based corporations fired American workers to relocate factories from the U.S. to Mexico and hired these newly ‘freed’ peasants for a small fraction of the wages U.S. workers needed to live. In an affront to any notion of democratic representation, none of those so affected were asked for their consent before being made to participate in this process. And in contradiction to the ‘systemic’ benefit claimed by economists, this factual dispossession left formerly (socially) self-sufficient human beings in greatly diminished circumstances not of their own making. A rough analog would be redistributing ruling class wealth and placing its former ‘owners’ on rafts in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to fend for themselves.

The circumstances in Europe are more complex, with ten million plus refugees fleeing American and NATO (American) wars joining with economic refugees from the ‘new’ European periphery and the recently immiserated peripheral states of Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland. As was the case in the U.S.; in the late 1990s and early-mid 2000s this periphery was flooded with ‘fast’ money from Wall Street (including major German and French banks) that created a boom and then a bust. Through ‘structural’ arbitrage the misallocation of bank money ran from the European center (Germany, France) to the periphery, largely along imperial lines. This is to argue that very little of this mass migration is driven from ‘below;’ people tend to stay where they are when doing so is possible.

Any surprise at rising racism and xenophobia requires collective amnesia of truly heroic proportions. By 2010 in the U.S. liberal pragmatist Barack Obama was vilifying Mexican and Central American immigrants as he ramped up the most aggressive arrest and deportation program in modern American history. At the same time the German political leadership was hiding German bank malfeasance and imperial industrial strategies behind the racist caricature of ‘lazy Greeks’ who would rather mooch off of hard-working Germans than pay their bills. That Greek ‘bills’ were the product of predatory lending and structural arbitrage for the benefit of German and French bankers and industrialists in coordination with a home-grown lootocracy of Greek plutocrats left the Greek people as victims, and hardly the wastrel lay-a-bouts of German manufacture.

International finance has long been the social mechanism for converting imperial economic relations into moral obligations. In earlier history IMF ‘structural adjustment’ programs were used to lay claim to labor-power and common-property through strategies of ‘freely’ undertaken (debt-based) re-colonization. Since 2008 Barack Obama has maintained that bankers had to hold the power in home foreclosures to prevent ‘moral hazard’ from greedy borrowers. And the German political leadership claimed that Greeks must repay ‘their’ debts no matter that ordinary Greeks had little to do with incurring them and that the loans were intended to benefit German and French banks and European industrialists and not the Greek people.

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Of significance is the uni-directionality of this moral obligation— at no time in recent history have these institutions and their leaders been called to account for their own practices. Through the actions of nominally public institutions like the Federal government and the Federal Reserve ruling elites are always and everywhere ‘made whole’ through bailouts and mechanically raised asset prices (by the Federal Reserve) while dispossessed citizenries are thrown into implausible ‘competition’ and told to fend for themselves. That the Democratic Party leadership so conspicuously exchanges recurring bailouts and an ‘hospitable’ business environment for campaign contributions and well-paid ‘private’ sector jobs leaves it solely responsible for the electoral consequences it now faces.

The coded racist language used by Bill and Hillary Clinton in the 1990s was to gain political advantage through creation of social divisions without bearing the political consequences of being explicitly racist. Much as the implied race of Ronald Reagan’s ‘welfare queen’ was unambiguous to its intended audience, White suburbanites hearing Hillary Clinton rail against ‘super-predators’ understood clear delineation between their cocaine-snorting offspring and the Black ‘criminal class’ that ‘belonged in prison.’ That the social result of the Clintons’ dog-whistle politics was ‘reinvented’ institutional racism and the needless destruction of a few million Black lives is hardly absolved by contention that the Clintons ‘aren’t really’ racists. In what configuration of the world do racist outcomes not tie to ‘real’ racist intentions?

When Donald Trump rails against ‘criminal’ Mexican immigrants he combines the circumstances created by Bill Clinton’s ‘free-trade’ policies with assertions made repeatedly by Barack Obama and his lieutenants that the two million people they arrested and deported for immigration violations were ‘criminals.’ And in what way, other than degree of explicitness, is Mr. Trump’s use of dog-whistle politics different from that of the Clintons? Part of the problem is that under U.S. law immigration law violators are ‘criminals’— the claim is tautological. Given the background circumstances of intentional dispossession engineered by Bill Clinton for the benefit of U.S. agribusiness and American industrialists looking for cheap labor, who bears responsibility for the dispossession that led to the ‘crimes’ committed? Put differently, why is the crime not the acts of dispossession rather than the acts of the dispossessed?

The implied assertion that Donald Trump rallies ‘real’ racists and nativists amongst dispossessed White working class voters while Bill and Hillary Clinton rally real racism, but not real racists, amongst the liberal classes, adds the missing class dimension to the political argument in support of Mrs. Clinton. In what way are the upper-middle class ‘swing’ voters to whom the Clintons appealed with coded racial politics not racists in the same manner as Donald Trump’s voters? Perhaps Mrs. Clinton would care to explain the difference to the several million Black human beings whose lives were destroyed by the American system of mass incarceration. Having been warned of likely dislocations from the trade agreements they passed, why shouldn’t establishment Democrats be held to account for the social consequences of their policies?

Given Western history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the present moment is indeed frightening. But who, precisely, brought us to current circumstance? Any reading of the historical record finds prominent Democrats making the conscious decision to throw their lots with Wall Street as early as Jimmy Carter’s appointment of Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve. By intentionally killing the economy through needlessly-punishing monetary policies Mr. Carter gave superficial credence to the Democratic leadership’s subsequent claim that the public was driving the political move hard right rather than simply rejecting engineered mass dispossession. The moment that Ronald Reagan ended Mr. Volcker’s punishing policies the economy recovered. How hard is that to explain if you have an honest interest in explaining it?

Hillary Clinton’s ‘incrementalist’ apologia for the Democratic leadership’s thoroughly corrupt and increasing dysfunctional policies is to buy the existing order a few more years to continue looting what remains of the residual imperial economy through Wall Street’s ‘reinvented’ finance capitalism. The pretense that economic resolution requires decades of carefully managed (by right-wing Democrats) oversight is cynical cover for the twin facts that the Democratic leadership exists to continue moving the West in a direction that serves a small number of self-serving plutocrats at the expense of the rest of us and that ‘popular’ resolution is but a click of Dorothy’s heels away through government jobs programs and reversing the neoliberal ascendance toward programs that redistribute political and economic power more broadly.

The contention that these policies aren’t politically feasible is a misreading of the political moment for the benefit of those who benefit from the status quo. Alternatively, how would establishment Democrats know what is and isn’t politically feasible when the only policies they’ve considered for four decades are finance-centric neoliberalism tied to murderous militarism? The second-order contention that voters have a moral obligation to vote for the morally bankrupt, neoliberal militarist Hillary Clinton takes existing circumstance as a fact of nature rather than the carefully crafted outcome of four decades of the Democratic leadership’s deliberate political choices. With liberal Democrat Barack Obama occupying the White House for the last seven years, if Democrats aren’t responsible for the current political moment, who is?

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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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