Name the System: Some Semi-Random Summer Reflections

Source: screenshot

Behind the Orange-Tinted “OMG” Distraction  

Every once and awhile a moment of political insight breaks out on the “P”BS NewsHour – a de facto outpost of Wall Street’s think-tank the Council on Foreign Relations.   One such instant occurred two nights with the following dialogue between Weekend “NewsHour” host Hari Sreenivasan and the show’s special correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

GREENFIELD: “[The Trump White House] is a presidency unlike any other we have seen…”

SREENIVASAN: … “there’s…changes that are happening underneath that Congress doesn’t necessarily have to approve.”

GREENFIELD: “Yes, and I think all of the daily OMG stories, breaking news, breaking news, is kind of distracting us from the following. The federal bench is being totally remade.  Dozens of new appointments with no traditional filibuster, they are going to get through this Congress at the district court level and significantly the court of appeals level, right below the court, where the great majorities of decisions are made.  Trump has outsourced judges to the Federalist Society and other very conservative groups.  So, this judiciary is going to move to the right, and those people are lifetime appointments.”

“Then you get the changes on things like environmental policy, the Paris accord, climate accord obviously, but all across the line — new rules, old rules being brought back, all to the benefit of drillers, of coal mines, of the auto industry, a 180 turn.”

“Consumer protection, you know, the Dodd-Frank bill that was supposed to protect us from banking excesses after the meltdown, that’s being eroded away.  The Volcker rule so-called, to stop banks from speculating, may be eroded.”

“On race and crime, what the attorney general was doing on everything from how the local police departments are being policed, to the whole notion now that affirmative action may be under threat.  You know, they’re going to after schools that may [have] discriminated against whites.”

“These are huge changes but they don’t get spotlight of the latest Marx Brothers’ White House impression, but it’s significant stuff.”

SREENIVASAN: “Yes, and all of these shifts are to the political right.”

GREENFIELD: “That’s really interesting.  There were people who thought, you know, Donald Trump is essentially a third-party candidate.  He did a hostile takeover of the party. And some of what he said was at great variance with the Republican conservative catechism.  Maybe we’ll tax rich, maybe single payer works in some places.  He’d been pro-choice.  He’d been pro-gun control…[But] every — every decision that he has made, whether it’s social policy that the transgender troops no longer are going to be allowed in the military… Everything has been just to shore up a conservative base, both socially and economically, and I think that’s significant.”

Yes. Beneath the rolling “This Week in Trump” (TWIT) carnival, with its focus on Russia, Russia, Russia and on Trump’s pathetic failures to repeal Obamacare, Trump has been effectively advancing a hard-right Republican agenda directly through the nation’s executive branch. Candidate Trump’s occasional progressive-and populist-sounding campaign statements were just manipulative left fakes cloaking the real Koch Big Brother-like agenda.

It was good of Greenfield to mention the federal court appointments beyond just the Supreme Court.  The lifetime-appointed federal judiciary is being recreated in the image of the hard-right arch-capitalist, plutocratic, racist, sexist, and eco-cidal Federalist Society.  Ask any smart progressive working in the nation’s criminal justice system – a public defender, a civil rights attorney, a labor lawyer, a legal services staffer – why that matters.  Bring a legal pad to write down all the reasons.

Ask any Earth scientist why the Steve Bannon’s war on “the administrative state” matters in the realm of executive branch environmental policy.

Ask any police accountability or civil rights activist why it matters that Trump appointed a racist white nationalist as Attorney General.

I was reminded by Greenfield’s comment to read Naomi Klein’s new book No Is Not Enough.: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need (Haymarket, 2017). There she notes that “Trump and his advisers” are in the White House to:

“pull off a domestic shock doctrine.  The goal is all out war on the public sphere and the public interest, whether in the form of antipollution regulations or programs for the hungry.  In their place will be unfettered power and freedom for corporations.  It’s a program so defiantly unjust and so manifestly corrupt that it can only be pulled off with the assistance of divide-and-conquer racial and sexual politics, as well as a spectacle of non-stop media distractions.”

There are three essential things Greenfield would never had added to his insight.  First, the biggest single media distraction of all by far has been the Russia hysteria, which Max Blumenthal has aptly described as a “convenient… way of opposing Trump without having to do anything remotely progressive.”

Second. “P”BS has been a leading participant in the endless Russia madness. (I know because “P”BS is the only station that comes in clearly on my television and I often watch its nightly “NewsHour” while making dinner.  The “NewsHour” is obsessed with Russiagate.)

The System Beneath the Shocking Spectacle: What’s Not for the One Percent to Like?

Third, as Klein notes, the Trump Shock is “not just [about] individual or even a group of individuals… [it’s about the neoliberal capitalist] system that has elevated them to such heights” (Klein, No is Not Enough, pp.11-12) – a system under which, as Klein notes, the “Democratic Party establishment [is] also enmeshed with the billionaire class….” (p.10).  That’s a key point.  As a corporate media that created the Trumpenstein persists in falsely blaming the Clockwork Orangutan on (see this unmitigated crap from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria two nights ago) the white working-class (in brazen defiance of actual voting data), the ruling class continues to clean up with glee. Atop the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money, the wealthy few are enjoying the opportunity to cash in from Trump’s plutocratic presidency while watching the reigning media-politics culture attributing that deadly presidency to the unwashed proletariat.

Trump’s nationally embarrassing absurdities pile up from one news cycle to the next. Normally staid news anchors are reduced to shaking their heads in disbelief and outrage at his latest childish and all too commonly misogynist Twitter outrage. The world cringes at the practically subhuman ogre inhabiting the White House—a great symbol of the vulgar stupidity, mean-spirited violence and sociopathological selfishness that is all too prevalent in the nation’s corporate-crafted mass culture.

If it cared to, the nation’s globalist, corporate and financial elite could take this fetid farce of a president down. The ruling class could threaten a capital strike, promising to “make the economy scream” until Trump was sent back to the golf course full time through impeachment, 25th Amendment removal (on grounds of incompetence) or resignation (a la Nixon).

The corporate and financial masters might well be taking such action were Bernie Sanders or some other actual progressive in the Oval Office. They have no intention of removing Trump, however—not yet, at least. So what if he’s dangerously “unfit for the presidency”? Who cares if his call to “deregulate energy” is “almost a death knell for the species” (Noam Chomsky)? There’s too much quick money to be made with Trump and his opportunistic Republican allies in office. “American” capitalism is an inherently sociopathic system that exhibits less special attachment to the United States with every passing globalist year. Beneath all his ridiculous and manipulative populist pretense and his vile Twitter thuggery, Trump dutifully meets regularly with top corporate CEOs. He seems sincerely dedicated to escalating the already savage inequality of wealth and power in the U.S. Austerity, tax cuts and deregulation are good for the rate of profit.

Along the way, he provides a useful distraction and obsession for liberals and progressives. He keeps “the left” focused on his latest politically incorrect, identity-triggering offense and on the major party, candidate-centered election cycles instead of the critical task of forging a serious popular and working-class resistance movement beneath and beyond the quadrennial electoral extravaganzas that are sold to us as the only politics that matter.

The outlandish tyrant in the White House is also very good at poisoning public discourse and thereby encouraging more and more ordinary Americans to abandon any concern for politics because it’s just too toxic and Orwellian to merit precious attention and energy better focused on personal and family survival. Reduced public engagement is something the ruling class has every reason to want to foster in the populace. Oligarchs want as little public interference as possible in public affairs.

On top of all that, the masters get to blame the Trump atrocity on the working-class majority, thereby discrediting yet further the last flickering embers of democracy.

For the One Percent, what’s not to like?

Dismal Dollar Dave and Progressive Democrats’ Stockholm Syndrome

In her new book, Klein confides that Bernie Sanders “is the only candidate for US President I have ever openly backed.”  (I guess that means she didn’t endorse Ralph Nader or Jill Stein in the 1990s and in this century. And that she was too young for the inspiring but doomed 1980 presidential candidacy of the great ecos-ocialist Barry Commoner.  I openly backed all those candidates, though without any illusion that electoral and candidate-centered politics ought to be anything remotely like the main focus of left and progressive activism.)

I could not join Ms. Klein and numerous other leftish liberals and progressives in backing Bernie F-35 Sanders.  This was primarily because of his continuing attachment to U.S.-led global imperialism (contemporary capitalism’s evil Siamese twin), something that I found and still find morally and practically/programmatically unsound.  His weak positions and statements around racial justice/reparations didn’t help.

Still, I understood why many people on the broadly defined portside “felt the Bern.” And I would have held my nose to vote for Sanders against Trump (I couldn’t pull that off for the “lying neoliberal warmonger” [Adolph Reed Jr’s apt description] Hillary Clinton) had he been the Democrats’ nominee.  I would have done so in the names of single-payer national health insurance, seriously progressive taxation, and the slowing of climate change, which candidate Sanders properly identified (the best thing he’s ever done) as the top threat to Americans’ “national security” during a debate with Hillary.

But there’s only so far that I can go in understanding the Lesser Evilism that Bernie preached even after he was cheated out of the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.  How odd it is this summer to see bumper stickers for “Dave” – that is for my local (southeastern Iowa) U.S. Congressman David Loebsack – next to “Bernie 2016” on the backs of Volvos and Hondas here in super-liberal, “left-leaning” Iowa City. I wonder how many of the local heartland progressives who drive these cars know that Loebsack spent his time at the February 3, 2016 Iowa Democratic Party presidential caucus going around and (as I personally witnessed) telling his neighbors that “we’ve got to stop this Bernie guy.”  Sanders, Loebsack said, was a doomed socialist candidate.  Dave aggressively trumpeted Hillary – surely known to many Iowans as one of the worst and most conservative Democratic presidential candidates of all time – as “the one who can win.”

Quite the opposite was true. Thanks to the hollowing out of America in the current peak neoliberal New Gilded Age, 2016 was slated to be an “anti-establishment” election.  It was going to be either Sanders, running as an actual progressive and economic semi-populist in the New Deal mode or Trump, the arch-plutocrat pretending to be maybe a bit progressive and economically populist while advancing a stealth arch-plutocratic and exploiting the right-wing white-nationalist variant of American populism.  The dismal dollar-drenched lying neoliberal warmonger Hillary was never going to get her turn.

It was Herr Donald or The Bern. The ruling class picked Trump, not Bernie, for obvious reasons, shockingly enough.

Dave Loebsack is a “progressive Democrat” (locals want to believe) who took the money to back the neoliberal corporatist Barack Obama over the labor candidate John Edwards in 2007-08,  Dave voted repeatedly to fund George W. Bush’s criminal war in Iraq.  And in 2015 Dave took $5500 worth of hush money from Energy Transfer Partners – the builders of the $4 billion planet-cooking and water-endangering “black snake” Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which is now pumping fracked North Dakota oil across 18 Iowa counties.

Dismal Dollar Dave helped put Donald Trump in the White House by helping Hillary narrowly squeak out the Iowa Caucus over Sanders. But local progressives insist on symbolically backing both him and Bernie at the same time.

I continue to be amazed at how little sense many progressive Democrats seem to have of how viciously and pathologically loathed they are by the corporate Democrats who run the show atop the not-so leftmost of the nation’s two major parties. Stockholm Syndrome?

Recently, while writing a CounterPunch essay in my local downtown Iowa City coffee shop, I sat five feet away from a revolting spectacle. A snarky and ill-groomed, fast-talking red-headed young man from Loebsack’s campaign was rapidly interviewing a smart young University of Iowa student for a volunteer position.  The assignment? To help build a donor database so stocked with money as “to scare off any potential [actually progressive Democrat] challengers” to Dave in 2018.

The deal was made in five minutes, quicker than a cheap paid hook-up in a Reno bus station.

Money talks. And the Democratic Party marches ahead with its “pathological demobilization” (Anthony DiMaggio’s apt description) of what would be the working-class base of any authentic progressive opposition and “resistance” party.

On the Abolition of Lifeguards

Soon there might not be any working-class left to support to the neo-New Deal social-democratic agenda that Bernie Sanders might have brought across the presidential finish line (imagine the obstructionist chaos that would have ensued) almost by accident last year.

Speaking of neoliberalism and television, a hidden summer memory of mine was recently jogged by a segment I saw on The Weather Channel while I was working out on an elliptical machine at the University of Iowa Wellness and Recreation Center.  A veteran beach safety professional was telling viewers what to do if they ever get caught in a rip-tide – an outward current that takes you away from the beach and further out into the ocean the lake in which you are swimming. The first advice is not to fight the current and just to swim parallel to the beach until the tide stops.  Then proceed back in. If that’s too tiring, the second advice is to tread water and raise your hand while calling “Lifeguard, Lifeguard.”

Okay, but what happens when they abolish lifeguards?  I am a reasonably strong swimmer (thanks to the YMCA youth swimming programs of 1960s Chicago) who has been front-crawling off the beach of Warren Dunes State Park in Southwestern Michigan since the Reagan era. At some point in the mid-1990s, I recall, the State of Michigan under the Republican welfare-slashing Governor John Engler got rid of lifeguards in the name of cost-saving and deficit reduction.

One consequence of this brilliant budgetary move was that I now found myself occasionally bringing traumatized children who’d never had swimming lessons back in from deep water they’d gotten into at Warren Dunes – something I was not trained to do.  I never confronted a rip-tide there, thankfully.

The lifeguard elimination continues to this day.  The only state workers you see at the Warren Dunes beach are sullen-looking teenagers riding around with walkie talkies on three-wheeled dune buggies.  They empty the garbage cans and keep an eye out for illegal open alcohol.

Michigan couldn’t get rid of all the lakeside first-responders, of course.  You do sometimes see a local town ambulance with EMTs hauling off some waterlogged victim of bad, personally irresponsible swimming decisions.  It’s easy to bring them in after they stop struggling.

I keep meaning to do some research on the incidence of drownings off Michigan state beaches in the years since they abolished lifeguards – those evil incarnations of “the administrative state” that Steve Bannon wants to tear down.

It’s all about labor elimination, the saving of money through the removal and displacement of the human worker, who inconveniently requires money to perform tasks.

…and Parking Meters

I’ll never forget the first time I discovered that parking meters had been eliminated in my home city of Chicago.  It was more than ten years ago.  It was a warm summer night.  I had just driven into Chicago from DeKalb, Illinois, to visit my mother in the South Loop.  It was a time when I was first discovering the middle-aged affliction of lower back pain, exacerbated by what seemed like two hours of stop and go misery on the city’s west-suburban edge.  Darkness was settling in as I exited my air-condition-less Subaru in a foolishly (personally irresponsible) dehydrated state only to discover that I could barely walk. I trudged bent over with a dollar’s worth of change in my hand to where I expected to find one in a long line of city parking meters. There was just a dent in the sidewalk where a four foot-metal pole hosting a meter used to be.  It was the same all the way down the block. I asked a passerby what had happened.  They pointed me to a green box two blocks south.

I hobbled down and stared at the strange new payment contraption. There was an 800-phone number listed.  After 20 rings or so, a cold metallic voice answered and I asked them who they were and where they were located. “I can’t tell you that sir,” the voice said. “So, what happened to parking meters?” I asked.  “They are a thing of the past,” the voice answered.

The insult to injury was that the new system tripled the price of parking.  It now cost me more than three dollars to park for 45 minutes.

Turned out, as I soon learned, that Chicago’s neoliberal Mayor Richard (Daley) the Second had cut a deal with a private corporate contractor allowing the firm to rake off huge fees while granting Hizzoner the added benefit of slashing hundreds of city workers from the labor-intensive job of emptying parking meters of their coins and collecting those coins as revenue.

It got worse as time went on. “Punting his way out of a budget hole in 2008,” the Chicago Tribune noted four years ago, “Daley got the Chicago City Council to cede 75 years’ worth of parking revenue to a private contractor for $1.15 billion upfront. He spent most of that money and quickly retired, one step ahead of the angry voters whose parking rates had quadrupled overnight.”

Just another little story from the age of neoliberalism, which is a fancy word for capitalism returning its savagely regressive norm.

…and my Credentials File

My favorite personal neoliberal labor-saving story concerns the academic institution where I received my doctorate in U.S. history – Binghamton University (BU). At one point one summer ten or years ago, having just spied a last-minute faculty opening, I found out that BU had destroyed my professional credentials file. Shredded it and swept it into Karl Marx’s proverbial “dustbin of history”.  I was reminded of the Old Mole’s 1848 reflection on how under the profits system “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

A bit of an overreaction perhaps but a credentials file, I should explain, is no small thing in “higher education’s” ever-fading professional labor market. It contains one’s official undergraduate and graduate transcripts (a record of courses you have taken and grades you have received) and a set of letters of recommendation from authorities who are familiar with your academic record. It is generally requested along the following lines in (for example) academic job advertisements: “send cover letter, vita, and credentials file, to Dr. Edward Snodgrass, Chair, Search Committee, 20th Century European History Position, Northern State University.”

My file had been profanely disappeared, tossed down Orwell’s memory hole, along with untold thousands of others because – as a woman working in BU’s Career Planning office told me – “We weren’t making any money off them and had to stop doing credentials.”

Money, money, money.

Speaking of which, I get phone calls from BU students seeking help from the university’s alumni network. The students tell me “you’ve had a great career and made a lot of money with your Binghamton degree” and that this puts me in position to sponsor them as they strive to access the opportunity I enjoyed. They don’t seem to believe me when I say that the only thing my Binghamton doctorate (and my now disappeared credentials file) ever qualified me for in the field of History was the right to teach adjunct courses for $2500 a semester (and less) and a one year visiting professor gig.

Academia helped pioneer the cost-saving neoliberal reorganization of the labor market with the adjunct gambit. And the rate of “surplus value” on my labor power was pretty damn high when I taught history, that’s for sure. Think 25 students all paying $3000 or more for a class minus my $2500 and the cost of renting a classroom in the Chicago suburbs.

It’s all about the money.

“But you’ve written books,” a Binghamton student with a Sub-Continental accent (I half-wondered if she was contacting me from a call center outside Mumbai) told me a few weeks ago. “Surely you are making a lot of money from royalties.”

“Well, not exactly…. I’ll tell you what. If you can find my credentials file, I’ll send you my next royalty check.”

“I’ll try, sir.”

Here is a remarkable and political fact: BU could not notify me about the impending liquidation of my unprofitable credentials file but can reach me regularly in pursuit of money.

It is a little epitome of the neoliberal era, wherein the “public sector” behaves in accord with market logic, stripping services that don’t “pay” while scrambling for private dollars and selling those services to private corporations.

Money, money, money.

Sadly, the three senior professors who wrote me a wonderful recommendation letters on the basis of my positively evaluated teaching performance in the labor cost-saving world of adjunct teaching had all passed away by the time I learned about the efficient shredding of my credentials file.  All attempts to transcribe new gushing letters from seances with my departed professional departmental supervisors have failed.

Abolish Your Job, Work Alone: Solidarity With Yourself

Recently I went in to a bank to deposit a check into a small business account I have set up for my income from political writing and speaking.  The bank is right across from my favorite coffee shop in downtown Iowa City – the same one where I witnessed the Dollar Dave Loebsack campaign’s sordid solicitation of a young woman to help them raise money, money, money. The bank sits in a classic old early 20th century building I always appreciate when I stop in to hand over some signed checks for deposit.

The clerk gave me a friendly lecture on how I really shouldn’t do this anymore.  I can just scan my checks in online and send them in that way, she said: “It’s really cool.”

“Huh.” I said.  “But I like coming in here.  It’s pleasant and convenient. Are you trying to eliminate your own job?”

She smiled and said she’d been told to say this now because “everything’s going online.”

Yes, and, speaking of back health, it’s just another way in which I am supposed to spend yet more of my waking time hunched over a glowing computer screen.

Labor elimination and displacement.  It’s all about money, money, money – for the Few, not for the many.

It won’t be all that long, perhaps, until currency is fully digitalized and the financial powers that be to pay for their next financial collapse by deleting credits from our online savings and retirement accounts.

But that’s assuming there’s still be a livable Earth around to host such finance-capitalist computer science fiction as fact. As the environmentalist bumper sticker say: “There’s No Economy on a Dead Planet” and “There’s No Planet B.”

The money-rich Mars colonization-ist Elon Musk is looking, to be sure, but he’s not going to find it

Labor elimination – that’s the ticket.

When I was kid in Chicago, the garbage trucks would come around the corner with a team of workers, union members, yelling and laughing, to clean up the block. They looked happy working together, providing essential city services for a livable wage, as a group.

Today in Iowa City, I see the garbage and recycling trucks go by.  There’s one lonely looking guy operating a highly automated piece of rolling technology.  He can enjoy solidarity with himself on the job. It’s sad to behold.

Three Cheers!

There’s a name for this system.  During the second Reagan term and the first Bush Sr. presidency, I worked summers on the morning sanitation crew at Del Monte Plant 111 in DeKalb, Illinois.  The factory was a great old pea and (especially) corn cannery that had anchored the town’s southeast side for many decades.  My paternal grandparents worked there packing troop provisions during World War II.  I worked next to an entertaining old alcoholic whose father had been my father’s doctor (“Doc Carney”) in DeKalb back in the 1940s. He told fascinating stories about the old days while we blew crusted corn and peas off giant machines with our trusty high-pressure water hoses.

When I finished my cleaning tasks early, as I often did (I had a lucky assignment), I would sometimes walk around the plant and try to lead my fellow workers in a chant: “three cheers for industrial capitalism: hip-hip-hooray, hip-hip-hooray, hip-hip-hooray! Three cheers for industrial capitalism!”

It caught on for a while, much to my six-foot five ex-Marine foreman’s disgust.  He once instructed me to take my hose to the edge of the plant and “guard the perimeter.”

It was the Reagan era.  I thought it might be good if people could just name the system.

That plant was closed many years ago.  It was deemed inefficient: too labor-intensive. I wonder how many lives that little-known plant-closing destroyed in the name of money.

My big tough foreman was out of a job, laid low by the money power.  “All that is solid melts into air.”

I’ll say one thing for Del Monte.  You’d walk out of that plant after the morning shift and there was this giant pile of first-rate sweet corn just sitting there outside the employee entrance.  You could take home as many ears as you wanted.

For free. Imagine.

I’ve been going through an interesting book titled Mindful Money: Simple Financial Practices for Reaching Your Financial Goals and Increasing Your Happiness Dividend.  On page 18 of this book the Buddhist and Berkeley-based financial adviser Jonathan K. DeYoe asks his readers to contemplate the following question: “what kind of legacy you want to create and leave behind?”

My answer: a legacy of resistance, mindful and not, to this criminal, money-mad profits system, which is destroying everything good, including life itself, on Earth.

Which reminds me: Help Paul Street keep writing here

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).