Born on the 5th of July

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

The unifying factor behind environmental decline, an extractive health care system, mind-numbing work for poverty wages, perpetual wars and increasingly intrusive and assertive commercial relations, is capitalism. Of course, the term is an abstraction, shorthand for a belief system used to explain and organize social relations. Its history is of brutality, pillage and genocide explained by its perpetrators as laying the ground for some imagined future civility.

The motivating factor behind its endurance and spread is the perpetual promise of a better tomorrow. If economic growth can only reach a certain level goes the logic, the social isolation, fractured relations, ruined landscape and brutality that is its product will all be proven worth it. In the half century since its newest incarnation, neoliberalism, was launched this certainty remains despite mounting evidence that it represents the greatest wrong turn in human history.

The political question in the present is: what to do about it? As with other turning points in history, embedded relations and social stasis form an anchor which must be raised to prevent them from determining the future. And in contrast with the manifestos of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the future is more about foregoing and not doing than doing. It is the doing, acting on a misplaced arrogance of certainty, that has brought us to the precipice.

Imagined civility was the backdrop for the exchange that momentarily levelled presidential hopeful Joe Biden— made between people who each had long careers perpetrating ‘acceptable’ social violence, one as a segregationist and the other putting poor people in prison. Together they are vying to represent the rich under a façade of inclusion. How much better for a woman (Kamala Harris) to lead the banking sector, the U.S. military and the oil and gas industry into the abyss. We do have our distractions.

What then are the implied preferences when considering most of the political candidates? Broad and rapid environmental decline is one. Perpetuation of the business of ‘war,’ in its current incarnation a term for slaughter to further business interests. ‘Inequality’ as rule by oligarchs and bosses. Increasing demands for consumption of goods and services. And subjection to well-funded and ever less accountable state power. This is the subtext of this electoral competition.

As political theater, the quantum of Fords sold, and pensions looted tells the truer story. Where, precisely, was a people’s representative in the debates? Wouldn’t simple self-preservation argue that social democrat Bernie Sanders is the less insane choice to move the capitalist conundrum back from the precipice? Sure, the other candidates could competently bail out Wall Street and create the illusion of environmental progress. But just such a program arguably brought us to the current moment.

For all the verbiage around authoritarianism and ascendant fascism, the history put forward to support it has been selective to a fault. European fascists didn’t end liberalism— defined here as self-legitimating explanations of capitalist predation. Liberalism ended itself, just as it is in the process of doing in the present. The danger was well broadcast during the prior eight years of efforts to restore the ruling order, regardless of the consequences. Saving the rich from the consequences of their own malpractice while leaving the polity to rot is the formula for fascist ascendance. It is also the entirety of the liberal political program.

Here environmental degradation flowering into full crisis is apt metaphor. While America has always been authoritarian, in the sense of being controlled by oligarchs, by the early twentieth century democratic political choice had been recast as product selection. The present claim that ‘we all’ are responsible for climate change and mass extinction places social choice where it never existed, or more precisely, where it has long been excluded. Choices within capitalism aren’t the choice of capitalism.

This comes to bear in the alleged ‘debates.’ A less propitious group of self-interested careerists is difficult to imagine. Other than Bernie Sanders, the system that brought them forward is broken. Kamala Harris spent her adult life putting poor people in prison. Joe Biden built his political career demonizing the poor and murdering brown people. Whatever they hope to win with election, the only guarantee is that the oligarchs will benefit while the lives of the rest of us are diminished.

In the realm of democratic choice, what isn’t on the ballot is democracy. The half of eligible voters who don’t vote appear to know American history better than the half that do. The technology for 100% voter participation has always existed. But the candidates represent the veil of oligarchy, not democratic choice. Capital controls political outcomes, not voters. And more bluntly, without the economic wherewithal to determine one’s life, the concept of political choice is cluttered at best.

Ultimately, the debates are commercial theater posed as political theater. The conception of time behind the imposed time constraints is commercial— long enough to sell Coca-Cola and Chevrolets, but never long enough to ask if any of the commercial offerings are really a good idea. The (alleged) debaters are part of the set, making commercial speech as political speech to sell the illusion of democracy. Rachel Maddow exists to sell munitions, predatory loans and foreign entanglements (GE), Lester Holt to sell Chevrolets.

Phrased differently, wouldn’t it make more sense for the candidates to ask Ms. Maddow and Mr. Holt what the commercial interests they represent want done about the environment, health care and inequality? These are the interests to whom actual establishment legislators defer when crafting policies. And it isn’t like this is a secret, aside from bourgeois blather about ‘our democracy’ when what they mean is their democracy. There is little doubt that this is precisely what they mean when claiming political choice.

More broadly, the U.S. is the vessel from which the pathologies of capitalism were poured. Any notion of Sao Paulo, Osaka and / or Beijing adds scale and complexity to the capitalist conundrum. How did they, like Americans, come to view the space between words, the comma and the exclamation point— the narrative sideline, as the substance of life? More troublingly, how do ‘we,’ those with a stake in the outcomes, move such a large object with so many moving parts away from conscious self-destruction?

It is telling that Mr. Biden thought his segregationist history was more politically palatable when explained through class, rather than race. Mr. Biden opposed school busing because it meant sending poor kids to better funded schools and vice-versa. The solution, ending class disparities to adequately fund public schools so that every child receives a quality education, was hidden behind carefully crafted resentment. Through what moral prism are poor children unworthy of adequate educations?

Class divisions were effectively used to sell the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill and to ‘end welfare as we know it’ by demonizing poor blacks to push the stressed middle class to the ‘side’ of capital. The program was racialized class warfare— most welfare recipients were poor whites and class is the major determinant of who is mass incarcerated. The hurtful history of race is still put forward in 2019 as a prelude to civility.

By the 1990s trade agreements and cuts to social services had put the bottom 90% of Americans at risk of disenfranchisement, so what better way to shore up support for capital than by setting the at-risk classes against one another? The black mis-leadership class (Glen Ford’s term) was the new face of class warfare, the enforcers of class power intended to further isolate the poor as capital set about increasing their numbers through offshoring, the disempowerment of labor and selective immigration (H1-B visas) policies.

Kamala Harris was a mis-leadership class comer, willing to use the prosecutor’s power to assure that those who lacked the social power to defend themselves spent decades behind bars. Framed askew, those who conspire to commit murder belong in prison, but rather than surrounding the Capitol Dome, the White House, Wall Street, and various and sundry executive board rooms to demand that their inhabitants prove improbable innocence, Ms. Harris went for the easy money by putting poor people away.

With little apparent knowledge of its history, the ‘good ole boy’ system was recreated by bourgeois liberals following the financial and economic unpleasantness of the mid-late 2000s when ‘ole boys’ in three-thousand dollars suits were given a pass for defrauding homebuyers with predatory mortgages. This followed closely the ole boy treatment of war criminals in the George W. Bush administration for whom justice was deemed ‘political,’ as if the same isn’t true when poor people are put in prison.

In the realm of neoliberal performativity, the strategy works— until it doesn’t. The brutal bourgeois, liberal hawks with well-nourished hatred of the poor, appear to see current political choices as reasonable. While nothing either meaningful or necessary is likely to be accomplished, goes the logic, at some future time actions can be taken and adjustments made. And racism can be eliminated providing the help cooperates by foregoing demands for better wages and working conditions. Such is the moral clarity.

And so it is with the issue of capitalism. Under what plausible scenario will environmental resolution, a functioning health care system, ending militarism and providing for the least among us be accomplished while capitalism determines Western economic relations? Conversely, what evidence is there that these deficiencies are incidental to capitalism, rather than its predictable results? Technocrat Elizabeth Warren, along with the Democratic Party establishment, claims that capitalism can be reformed. However, a half century of reforms has brought the West to its current predicament.

As applied to historical inflection points, the quiet before the storm separates understanding of great events from their causes. The ‘best economy in our lifetime’ has preceded every major economic calamity of the modern era. Perpetual surprise that political economy based on gratuitous wars, political and economic subjugation, pillage of the natural world and social division posed as market competition, admits only more insistent versions of these as if causes were magically dissociable from effects.

For several centuries the tendency has been for private interests to use government in the ‘public’ realm just as politicians have relied on private power to fund their political careers. In recent times the back-and-forth between public and private sector ‘service’ has resulted in the capture of government by private interests. Chartalist and Marxist theories pose the state as fundamental to capitalism. But capitalist theory (economics) can’t explain the state. This paradox has the people and institutions most dependent on state power at a loss to explain its existence.

As loathsome as Republicans are, the distance between them and establishment Democrats is tiny when scaled to the tasks at hand. Without radically transformative environmental programs we— humans and the other living things on the planet, face near certain decline on our way toward annihilation. Commercial difference— the two capitalist parties, posed as political difference points to the shortcomings of establishment politics. The bourgeois political program is to elect a Democrat— any Democrat, and then go to sleep for eight years.

Understanding the implausibility of capitalist solutions to capitalist crises requires relating cause to effect. Environmental problems are the result of capitalist production. The profit motive has made the American health care system the least efficient in the world. Through predatory lending, employment and control over housing and food, ghettoes are urban plantations where people are the cash crop. State management of capitalism, the New Deal, raised living standards. This shouldn’t have happened if capitalism ‘works.’

When leading Democrats proclaim themselves to be capitalists, they either don’t believe that crises are unfolding, or they don’t relate them to their causes. What would capitalist health care look like? Pretty much like what the U.S. has now. Why would they want to address ‘inequality’ when capital accumulation is claimed to be the generating mechanism for greater prosperity? Capitalist economists have never adequately accounted for environmental destruction because doing so would eliminate all the profits ever claimed to have been produced by capitalism.

The question remains: what will the collective ‘we’ do about these unfolding crises? Here, officialdom is an impediment. The goats, sheep and lambs ‘debating’ solutions are entertainers, establishment comers whose political fortunes will be determined by how effectively they deflect efforts to create a just, peaceful, democratic and environmentally sustainable world. In this context, the rationale for Bernie Sanders to ‘play by the rules’ disappeared with the release of the UN reports on climate change and mass extinction.

Without rule by the rich, the people of this country, and the world, can make a go of it. I’m involved in village and city government and go out of my way to know the municipal and government workers, the people who work for a living and those who hold down chairs and porch steps during the day because they’ve been economically excluded. They are mostly decent. And when called upon to make decisions, they generally rise to the occasion. The problem is that they are never called on to do so because Western political economy is controlled by the rich.

Frankly, I would rather tend my garden than help stir up a socialist revolution. But the trajectory of capitalism leaves little choice. Environmental crises will force a profound transformation of economic relations. Paradoxically, liberal technocrats are the least capable of conceiving the path forward. It isn’t just that if you chased the idiots out of Harvard and Yale, the service staff would be the only people left. The theory of knowledge that guides them renders the world largely invisible.

Independence Day is a celebration of slave-owning, genocidal oligarchs freed from the rule of European monarchs. To the extent it reflects aspirations for true democracy— including economic democracy that is the prerequisite for political democracy, it occasionally also serves as a reminder of political possibility.

So, happy 5th of July, the day when democratic control is wrested from the oligarchs for our own sake, and that of humanity.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.