Giving the Game Away

Photo by The U.S. Army | CC by 2.0

It doesn’t take much, just a sentence or a turn-of-phrase, sometimes even just a word or two, to give the game away.

“Homeland Defense”

Take these words that became ubiquitous among U.S. media and political elites referring to the United States of America in the wake of 9/11: “the homeland,” “defense of the homeland,” “homeland defense,” “homeland security.”

This omnipresent “homeland” rhetoric is profoundly nationalistic, authoritarian, and imperial.  There’s a Germanic, blood and soil feel about it: a sense that U.S.-Americans connection to North America below the Canadian line (plus Alaska and Hawaii) is rooted in race, ethnicity, and ancestry.  At the same time, it carries an implicitly imperial vision of the United States’ global place and role. There’s normal “defense” – “defense” of areas beyond our borders in alien regions we control and dominate – and then there’s defense of us proper: the home-/father-land.

“The American People’s” Declining Empire?

Another example comes from the conclusion of distinguished U.S, policy historian Alfred W. McCoy’s brilliant and dazzlingly original new book In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power (see my New York Journal of Books review of this study here). On the next-to-last page of this important volume, McCoy writes that the likelihood of the U.S. avoiding dramatic and rapid imperial decline (empires generally fall quickly, McCoy notes) over the next two decades is very low since, “the American people, blinded by decades of historically unparalleled power, cannot or will not take the steps to slow the erosion of their global position” (emphasis added).

Now, please don’t get me wrong.  McCoy’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in geopolitics, the history of Empire, U.S. foreign policy/imperialism, and the shape of the future (likely to be influenced by Washington’s decline and Beijing’s rise, as McCoy shows).  Still, the 25 words I just quoted reveal a significant flaw in his approach.  Strangely enough for a book published by a socialist-run press, In the Shadows is devoid of class analysis.  Surely, the author knows that “the American people” don’t make U.S. foreign (or, for that matter, domestic) policy.  Only a relatively tiny slice of elite capitalist and professional class people do that (see Laurence Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014 [Monthly Review Press, 2015) and Bastiaan Van Apeldoorn and ‎ Naná de Graaff, American Grand Strategy and Corporate Elite Networks: The Open Door since the End of the Cold War [Routledge, 2015]).

An intimately related deletion in McCoy’s book is any discussion of how and why the decline of the American Empire might be a good thing for ordinary people at home as well as abroad.  As Noam Chomsky noted in the late 1960s, “The costs of empire are in general distributed over the society as a whole, while its profits revert to a few within.” The so-called “defense” industry – the highly profitable and powerful corporate wing of the “military-industrial complex” that Dwight Eisenhower left the White House warning Americans about – is largely missing in McCoy’s volume. Certainly, McCoy knows that the Pentagon System functions as a great form of domestic corporate welfare for high-tech “defense” firms like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon – this while it steals trillions of dollars that might otherwise be spent meeting social and environmental needs at home and abroad. It is a significant mode of upward wealth distribution within “the homeland.”

(The biggest costs have fallen on the many millions killed and maimed abroad by the U.S. military and allied and proxy forces in the last seven decades and before. Oddly enough, the criminal and immoral nature of that ongoing slaughter never seems to get the recognition and denunciation it deserves in In the Shadows of the American Century, which ends by giving strange praise to “the American almost-century since 1945” for supposedly advancing “the rule of law, the advance of human rights, the spread of democracy” and “relative peace.” Seriously?)

“Pragmatist” Clinton Democrats vs. “Ideologue” Sanders Democrats

Another example of giving the game away in few words came two nights ago when the liberal-elitist “Inside Elections” political analyst Stuart Rothenburg spoke on the “P”BS NewsHour. “The Democrats as a party,” Rothenburg told NewsHour host and Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) member Judy Woodruff, “are divided between the Bernie Sanders wing and Hillary Clinton wing, the pragmatists and ideologues.”

For Rothenburg, the Clinton wing members are the “pragmatists,” the realistic adults who want “get things done” (one of the great neoliberal president Obama’s favorite phrases and claims). The Sanders folks are “ideologues,” a pejorative term meaning people who are mainly about ideology and who are carried away by their own flighty and doctrinal world view.

This was a slap (an ideological one I might add) at the more progressive and social-democratic faction of the Democratic Party – a blow masquerading as “objective” and detached political analysis.

What is an “ideologue”? According to the Oxford Living Dictionary, it is “an adherent of an ideology, especially one who is uncompromising and dogmatic” (emphasis added). Merriam Websters calls and ideologue “an impractical idealist…an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology” (emphasis added).

“Ideologue” was Rothenburg’s sophisticated way of saying “fuck you, excessively left progressives” to the considerably more youthful constituents of the Democratic Party who want to win office and govern in (imagine) some kind of decently democratic accord with majority progressive public opinion.

And, by the way, do the corporate (Obama-Clinton-Schumer-Pelosi) Dems have and get carried away by an ideology, an ideological world view, even a doctrine? Of course they do.  It’s called neoliberal capitalism, with a heavy and related overlay of U.S. imperialism. You might also call it, following the left historian Nancy Fraser, “progressive neoliberalism.”  As Fraser explained in (unfortunately) Dissent Magazine after Donald Trump’s election last January:

“In its U.S. form, progressive neoliberalism is an alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end ‘symbolic’ and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other. In this alliance, progressive forces are effectively joined with the forces of cognitive capitalism, especially financialization. However unwittingly, the former lend their charisma to the latter. Ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve different ends, now gloss policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives…Progressive neoliberalism developed in the United States over the last three decades and was ratified with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. Clinton was the principal engineer and standard-bearer of the ‘New Democrats,’ the U.S. equivalent of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labor.’ In place of the New Deal coalition of unionized manufacturing workers, African Americans, and the urban middle classes, he forged a new alliance of entrepreneurs, suburbanites, new social movements, and youth, all proclaiming their modern, progressive bona fides by embracing diversity, multiculturalism, and women’s rights. Even as it endorsed such progressive notions, the Clinton administration courted Wall Street. Turning the economy over to Goldman Sachs, it deregulated the banking system and negotiated the free-trade agreements that accelerated deindustrialization. What fell by the wayside was the Rust Belt—once the stronghold of New Deal social democracy, and now the region that delivered the electoral college to Donald Trump” (emphasis added).

I don’t think it’s too much to describe the reigning corporatist-imperialists atop the Democratic Party as ideologues: doctrinal adherents of neoliberalism (“progressive” or not) and imperialism.

The Pragmatic Illusion

The tendency of the reigning Democrats to mask their ideological commitment to the U.S. corporate, financial, and imperial state as non-ideological and even anti-ideological “pragmatism” predates the neoliberal era, of course.  As the New Left political scientist Bruce Mirroff noted in his forgotten classic study Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy (1976), the liberal icon JFK lined up consistently on the conservative, power-friendly side of each of what Dr. King called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: racism (deeply and institutionally understood), economic exploitation (capitalism), and U.S. militarism. More than a decade before neoliberal Democrats emerged to explicitly steer the Democratic Party to the corporate center, JFK’s declared sympathies for the poor and working class took a back seat in his White House to “the real determinants of policy: political calculation and economic doctrine.”

Political calculation “led Kennedy to appease the corporate giants and their allies in government.”  Economic doctrine “told [JFK] that the key to the expansion and health of the economy was the health and expansion of those same corporate giants.” It call happened under the cloak of non-ideological “pragmatism.” “The architects of Kennedy’s ‘New Economics,’” Mirroff wrote, “liked to portray it as the technically sophisticated and politically neutral management of a modern industrial economy. It is more accurately portrayed as a pragmatic liberalism in the service of corporate capitalism” (emphasis added).

The regressive nature of JFK’s “New Economics’ was cloaked by his occasional, much-publicized spats with certain members of the business community (the executives of U.S. Steel above all), his repeated statements of concern for labor and the poor, and his claim to advance a purely “technical” and “pragmatic” economic agenda that elevated “practical management” and administrative expertise above the “grand warfare of ideologies.” It’s an old and ongoing story in corporate-managed states.

The Smear Explained

Meanwhile, do the Sandernistas have a strong “pragmatic” “get things done” dimension?  Absolutely.  Indeed, their hero is way too “pragmatic” and compromising  – I would say too cowardly and/or too imperialist – for my “ideological” (and moral and practical) taste when it comes to the U.S. war machine, which Bernie can’t seem to meaningfully critique even as it sucks up trillions of taxpayer dollars his progressive domestic policy agenda requires.

What was Rothenburg’s snooty smear of the Democratic Party’s Sanders wing all about? He was commenting on Tuesday election results that suggest a considerable leftward shit in U.S. public opinion and voting behavior: the resounding gubernatorial victories of Democrats Ralph Northam and Phillip Murphy in Virginia and New Jersey, respectively, along with numerous lopsided Democratic victories in state legislative and local municipal races  across the country – including victories by a significant number of candidates openly aligned with Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).  This has sparked the Democratic Party elite, Rothenburg’s crew, to defend the neoliberal doctrine against the progressive, more left-leaning wing in the Democratic Party.  As the World Socialist Webs Site explained:

In the face of these indications of a general shift to the left in popular sentiment, the predominant response within the Democratic Party establishment is to call for the party to move even further to the right. Douglas E. Schoen, a former pollster for President Bill Clinton and author of Putin’s Master Plan: To Destroy Europe, Divide NATO, and Restore Russian Power and Global Influence, wrote in a post on The Hill website that Northam had rejected the ‘brand of liberal progressive politics as that promoted by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.’ He continued: ‘Democrats in particular must continue to embrace the policy alternatives and centrist positions that propelled Northam’s success.’…The Washington Post editorialized: ‘The triumph of Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam in Virginia’s gubernatorial election Tuesday was a victory of decency, civility and moderation… Despite some flirtation with a $15 minimum wage and a few other populist stances during the spring Democratic primary, when he faced and vanquished a leftist challenger, his campaign generally avoided appeals to the Bernie Sanders-inspired extreme of his party’s base.’

Elite class privilege must be defended at all costs inside the Inauthentic Opposition Party (as the late Sheldon Wolin aptly described the dismal Democrats).  That’s why Stuart Rothenburg called the Sanders wing “ideologues.”

Speaking of giving the game away, that’s what the Democrats have been doing for the Republicans for years. If they listen to creeps like Doug Schoen and Stuart Rothenburg in coming months, they will (with all due respect for last Tuesday) do it again in 2018 and 2020.

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