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Time for the U.S. Yellow Vests

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Here are seven things you won’t hear much if anything about in the reigning corporate media regarding the ongoing record-setting partial shutdown of the United States federal government:

1: The Longstanding Neoliberal War on “Big Government”:  a proper understanding of the shutdown in relation to the longstanding capitalist project of what the leading corporate-neoliberal champion Grover Norquist called “starving the beast,” with “beast” taken to mean “big government.”  Norquist wanted, he said, “to cut government down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Now might be a good time to recall how Trump’s former top political adviser the faux-populist Steve Bannon (with whom Trump certainly still regularly speaks) described his main policy goal when speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February of 2017: “the deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Bannon once proudly told an academic: “I am a Leninist.”  Bannon said that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal too.”

Is the current shut-down not an exercise in “administrate state deconstruction” – something right out of the faux-libertarian (more on why I use that term in my next comment) fever dreams of a Norquist, a Bannon, a Charles Koch, a James McGill Buchanan, a Milton Friedman and others of their right wing and so-called free-market ilk?  The orange monstrosity says the shut-down could “go on for years.”  You can be sure that capitalist politico and ideologues in the Norquist and Bannon mode are hoping the shut-down can last as long as possible with no clear reported disasters resulting.  This will help them advance their “drowning” project. “See?” they can proclaim, as former federal employees work for reduced wages at grocery stores and shopping malls, “we don’t really need this big monstrous and totalitarian government after all.  All hail the free market!”

2: On the “Left Hand of the State,” That is:  any serious discussion of which parts of government are really targeted by right-wing neoliberal “Leninists” like Norquist and Bannon.  Beneath their anti-statist discourse about the great conflict between “government bureaucracy” (bad) and the “free market” (good), they wish to aggressively wield state policy of a specifically regressive, plutocratic, and authoritarian — state capitalist — sort. They don’t really want to destroy the state. They want to de-fund and de-legitimize what the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state”— the programs and services won by past popular struggles and social movements for social justice, equality, environmental protection, and the common good. They do not wish to axe the “right hand of the state” – the parts that provide service and welfare to concentrated wealth and dole out punishment (including rampant mass incarceration and felony-marking) for the poor (and right-handed social-control functions tend to rise when left-handed ones fall). They do not go after America’s Pentagon system, a great cost-plus subsidy for high-tech corporations like Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin, and Boeing.

It’s not about whether the state should work or exist. It’s about who government should work for: the public and the working-class majority or leading centers of concentrated wealth and power.

3: The Bipartisan Terror of Neoliberalism: how richly complicit the contemporary Democratic Party is in the ugly and regressive neoliberal project. The 2018-19 lockout may be primarily owned by Trump and the Republicans (as MSNBC will tell you again and again) but (as “MSDNC” will not report) the Democrats have participated in the assault on positive government functions across the whole long neoliberal era.

The deregulation of corporations rose dramatically under the Jimmy Carter presidency.  It was the arch-neoliberal president Bill Clinton who proudly proclaimed that “the era of big government is over” and then signed off on ending poor families’ entitlement to federal cash assistance while advancing racist mass-incarceration (a government program) with his “three strikes” bill.  Clinton passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a new continental bill of regulation-free rights for global investment capital.   He also worked on to work with Republicans to de-regulate derivatives and the financial sector more broadly. Giant Cold War-level “defense” (empire)  budgets – a massive taxpayer windful for corporate war masters – remained the rule under Clinton despite the collapse of the only other planetary “super power” (the Soviet Union) right before the beginning of Clinton’s presidency.

Bill Clinton was a masterful, silver-tongued fake-progressive champion of the U.S. bourgeois state’s movement from left- to right-handed state power when it comes to enforcing social control on the victims of the nation’s intertwined regimes of class rule and racial oppression. So, of course, was Obama, whose richly right-handed neoliberal and imperial policy recordI have detailed on numerous prior occasions hereand in othervenues.

4: Wall Street Dems for the Wall: how key Democrats like Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Senator Minority Leader Charles Schumer have in the past supported border fencing. All three voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and all three supported the 2013 Senate immigration overhaulthat passed the Senate, which called for tougher border security including additional physical barrier construction. As Oliver Orteganoted on Counterpunchtwo years ago, the border wall was a bipartisan project before it became a partisan football under Trump:

“When President Trump signedan executive order last week to complete a wall along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico, he was building on decades of bipartisan consensus among lawmakers…In fact, Congress had already approved a border wall not too long ago. In 2006, legislators—including many Democrats—passed theSecure Fence Act, which called for 700 miles of double-fence construction along certain stretches of the border. Trump cited the Bush-era law in the first paragraph of the executive orderhe signed Wednesday as rationale for his executive authority to order a wall be built.

“Many of the same Democratic leaders now bemoaning Trump’s wall votedfor one at the time— Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein….Then-Senator Barack Obama, who as President would later deporta record-high 3 million people during his two terms, lauded the bill on the Senate floor, sayingit would ‘help stem some of the tide of illegal immigration in this country.’”

And let’s not forget Bill Clinton’s critical wall-building activities in anticipation of heightened Mexican in-migration expected to result from NAFTA’s decimation of Mexican farmers. As Ortega noted:

“The most pivotal moments in the militarization of the border arguably took place during the time of Obama’s Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton. ‘Operation Gatekeeper,’ passed in 1994, poured billions of dollars into border security. High-intensity stadium lights, motion detectors, and remote video surveillance were installed along key points of the U.S-Mexico divide, and the amount of border patrol agents was increased by roughly a third. With resources deployed to patrol densely populated sectors, undocumented immigrants were often forced to trek barren desert and mountains. Thousands diedin their quest for a better life. ‘We will not surrender our borders to those who wish to exploit our history of compassion and justice,’ President Clinton saidat the time.”

“It’s no coincidence that Operation Gatekeeper followed another landmark in US-Mexico relations that same year: the North American Free Trade Agreement. Under NAFTA, Big Ag flooded the Mexican market with heavily-subsidized corn and other staples, displacing small farmers in Mexico in one of the greatest neoliberal coups in history. The result was a flood of immigrants heading northbound in search of opportunities, accelerating one of the largestmass movements of people in history.”

“In short, the U.S. government, acting in the service of corporate profits, caused the very mass migration it has spent the last 25 years trying to keep out and criminalize.”

5: The Authoritarian Idiocy of Our Holy Constitution, crafted to prevent popular sovereignty in the time of the French Bourbon monarchy: how the manifestly un- and even anti-democratic U.S. Constitution empowers the right-wing-led assault on positive federal government functions by absurdly over-representing the nation’s disproportionately white rural “red” (Republican) states in the presidential selection process and in the composition of the U.S.Senate. We hear nothing about how the Constitution helps feed the partisan polarization that lay behind the current government shutdown by enabling states to create House of Representatives districts so badly gerrymandered on partisan lines that right-wing extremists in Republican districts can exercise political influence far beyond their numbers. And we hear little if anything about how the Constitutional system of “checks and balances” is prone to crippling gridlock when its separate components are controlled by different and conflicting, mutually hostile parties (the Constitution’s framers thought they had avoided this flaw because they foolishly believed or claimed to believe that they had created a scheme that would prevent the emergence of political parties).

5: The Need for a Popular Intervention Beneath and Beyond the Masters’ Election Cycle. The Gilets Jaunes (“yellow vests”) in France have given us a taste of what’s required. Among their list of demands is a real and functioning democracy—popular self-rule. Further to that, they have called for a referendum whereby 700,000 citizen signatories would force the French Parliament to debate and vote on a given law within one year. Evoking the French Revolution of 1789, there have even been calls for a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution meant to create a new French government—a Sixth Republic based on popular sovereignty and majority rule rather than the demands of a de facto corporate-financial dictatorship. Imagine!

The yellow vests have no illusions that their nation’s reigning elite-controlled political parties and time-staggered election cycle offer anything remotely like substantive popular and democratic input on the making of policy.  They have already forced the repeal of a regressive fuel tax and are fighting effectively every day and in the streets for things supported by the majority of the French populace.

We, like the French, get to vote every few years?  So what? Mammon reigns nonetheless in the United States, where, as the latest and best political science definitely shows, “government policy…reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office”  The notion that “we the people” are supposed to sit around with glazed eyes captivated by the endless RussiaGate drama and the already-underwaytwo-year build-up to the next quadrennial electoral extravaganza (U.S. cable news is already obsessing over the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate field when it isn’t panting over crumb of Mueller-Trump-Russia news) while hundreds of thousands of “our” government’s workers go unpaid and key positive government functions are disabled in the present is preposterous from any kind of remotely democratic perspective.

7: The Potency of Direct Action. As the venerable left writer Barbara Ehrenreich recently Tweeted: “The shutdown would come to a sudden end if airport workers stop working and shut down air travel. Business, aka capitalism, cannot function if its minions are all floating in the stratosphere or fattening themselves at Cinnabon. The whole thing should take no more than 3 hours.”

That’s a bit too simple, perhaps.  TSA workers lack the legal right to strike and are likely afraid of losing their jobs and the back pay that is due them if they walk off their jobs. Still, the basic direct-action point is sound. Hiring replacement airport screeners for no pay would be no small problem for the federal government.  The TSA workers would get strong public support for refusing to work without pay – support that might be modelled on the remarkable airport mobilizations that protested Trump’s Muslim travel ban in early 2017.  And what if the airline pilots walked off their jobs, reasonably refusing to fly planes under the unsafe conditions created by the non-payment of air-traffic controllers?

It’s not for nothing that the remarkable Gilet Jaunesstruggle and story has been essentially blacked out in U.S. corporate media.

The time has come for direct worker and citizen action against the insane federal shut-down. Since I’m referencing Twitter, let me give the last word to an excellent and dead-on Tweet from the left economist Richard Wolff: “Where are the US ‘yellow vests’ to protest gov’t shutdown and the wall? Millions would sympathize, mobilize. The movement could grow, win demands, and expand just as in France.

More articles by:

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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