Why the Primaries Matter

Photograph Source: Phil Roeder – CC BY 2.0

The tired cliché that ‘this election is the most important ever’ is given weight this go-around by the seeming inability of American governance to solve problems with potentially catastrophic consequences. Marketers for the establishment parties claim the same old same old, that their alleged opponents are the problem and that they are the solution. But an increasingly disaffected polity isn’t buying it. As argued below, a self-perpetuating oligarchy is inviting political instability through its unwillingness to even feign a public interest.

The center-left parties of the West seem intent on following the Weimar playbook of serial capitalist crises followed by austerity with little apparent knowledge that that didn’t end well. Even heavily discounted warnings of impending environmental calamity suggest that radical reorganization of capitalist political economy should be well underway, while actual program proposals are barely being discussed. The ongoing concentration of wealth in the midst of the unresolved crisis of the Great Recession has left a large and growing working class one recession away from having nothing left to lose.

Incredulity by the political establishment that a self-described socialist has a large and growing constituency is evidence of how isolated it has become. The quote from John Kenneth Galbraith that ‘power is as power does’ provides brief respite from obfuscatory American political rhetoric. Variations on the idea, with substantive differences, include the source of Protestant grace in acts versus faith and Marx’s material antidote to Hegel’s idealism. Together they challenge the conception of power as personal possession, rather than as socially given and expressed through institutions.

The difference is crucial. By way of the crisis of the Great Depression, FDR was the last American president to materially address the distribution of power between capital and the institutions of civil governance as other than welfare for the rich. To an extent, Barack Obama won election in 2008 to redistribute power back toward civic institutions. His unwillingness to do so illustrates the political conundrum. Ironically, it was the institutions created by FDR that prevented the Great Recession from becoming a greater crisis.

But crises come in various forms. Some, like the financial part of the Great Recession, are violent but relatively short-lived. Others, like the targeted de-industrialization of NAFTA, are a social slow-bleed. And others still, like global warming, species loss and oceanic decline, result from de-centralized causes that make resolution difficult and politically complex. This inter-relatedness of seemingly individuated problems requires a holistic approach that state-capitalism is specifically designed to preclude.

For those who don’t recall— documentary accounts of the financial crisis of 2009 feature the  old, white guys in suits who caused the crisis racing back and forth in limousines frantically trying to save their bonuses and profit from insider information as actual human beings were losing their livelihoods, homes and futures to market outcomes that only appear to affect the little people. Through the official imagination, this is how American problems get solved. Else a few thousand brown people get white phosphorous dropped on their sleeping children. Power is as power does.

Specific people and institutions benefitted from the business practices that led to the Great Recession and from its resolution (bailouts). Recent American wars have been geopolitically destabilizing humanitarian disasters, but tremendously profitable for oligarchs and the institutions they control. Planned de-industrialization has been socially and economically destructive and politically destabilizing, but likewise very profitable for oligarchs and the institutions they control.

This makes the ‘piecemeal pragmatism’ of American political deliberation a suicide system of sorts. Leaving it to the capitalist and state-capitalist institutions that create problems to craft political solutions has led to ever more deeply instantiated, and therefore intractable, dysfunctionality. And still not explained is why allegedly democratic governance grants a ‘seat at the table,’ a euphemism for institutional control, to corporate chieftains and oligarchs whose ‘business’ is to override the democratic will for their own narrow benefit?

In contrast to decades of assurances from establishment politicians and their professional explainers in the press, none of what is written here thus far would be taken as radical if stated aloud at a mid-Western state fair, a suburban sports bar or a union meeting. Aside from quibbles, these problems are well and widely understood amongst the polity. Where they aren’t understood is in the regions and realms where wealth and power are threatened by potential solutions. But this is the very paradox that democratic institutions are in theory intended to resolve.

Power that emanates from wealth isn’t going to be voluntarily given up for the sake of democracy. 0.1%, 9.9% and 90% is the arithmetic of both class division and the distribution of political power. In theory— in fact, through the supporting premises of capitalist democracy, there should be no relationship between economic and political power. However, as the facts of American governance have it, the same arithmetic works either way. To save the suspense, that democracy causes oligarchy is less immediately plausible than that wealth buys political power.

It is hardly incidental then that Bernie Sanders’ ideological roots in New Deal liberalism have found a wide and appreciative audience amongst the economically marginalized who correctly understand the source of their dispossession. As the arithmetic of class division (0.1%, 9.9% and 90%) suggests, pious claims about social inclusion from those tossing people, towns, cities and whole regions of the country onto the economic garbage heap is a formula for resentment, not social cohesion.

Were this background the extent of Mr. Sanders’ appeal, he would still be the most politically attractive of the presidential candidates. However, it was in some measure FDR’s decision to ‘save’ capitalism that led to the ways and means that today threaten most life on the planet. The creation and proliferation of nuclear weapons was part and parcel of the decision to base American state-capitalism on weapons production. Add this to the reemergence of pre-New Deal economic policies and the environmental consequences of petro-militarism and history, as they say, has accumulated.

In greatly simplified fashion, this describes the base architecture of the state-capitalism that neoliberals spent recent decades shifting to private ownership. The social mandate of full employment used to legitimate military Keynesianism was redirected to private gain. Washington went from being drab government offices inhabited by modestly paid civil servants to be the richest city in the nation. Everything that wasn’t nailed down was bought by connected insiders using Wall Street money and only functions as ‘business’ through government contracts.

By the time that Bill Clinton arrived in Washington, neoliberal logic had converted state-capitalism into the trough from which the 0.1% – 9.9% fed. NAFTA, passed by Mr. Clinton in league with Republicans, made working class jobs expendable while protecting the professional class (9.9%) from international competition. The result was / is an inertial behemoth almost entirely dedicated to destroying the planet and its inhabitants in as cruel and pointless a manner as possible. The evidence: Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Toledo, the American healthcare system, etc.

With the lock of the establishment parties on the 0.1% and 9.9% (and vice versa), the shortest route to political democracy now is through economic democracy. Bernie Sanders has proposed a government job guarantee which could quickly and effectively empower a large political base, balance the power of capital through providing alternative livelihoods, and support a transition to sustainable livelihoods. Without such a program, capital retains its lock on political power through its ability to cause near instantaneous, widespread economic dislocations at the slightest hint to challenges to its power.

(While I agree with aspects of MMT Job Guarantee proposals, environmental concerns and a philosophical aversion to technology leave me closer to a pre-modern vision of economic sustainability).

From Bill Clinton’s tenure onward, Democrats have used the Federal Budget as a political weapon to give Wall Street near monopoly control of funding ‘public’ expenditures. Through his choice of economic advisors, Mr. Sanders (reportedly) understands the political nature of the Democrat’s balanced budget fetish, and it’s logic based on a gold standard that Richard Nixon did away with in 1970. Those who fear Fuehrer Trump would do well to revisit the austerity policies of Weimar liberals and center-left socialists that facilitated the rise of the Nazis who came to power promising to create jobs.

Nothing written here is to downplay the role that racist demagoguery has had in the rise of right-wing movements around the globe. But racist demagoguery didn’t have an audience before capitalist failures followed by misguided, economically illiterate and often deeply classist, austerity was imposed. A Federal job guarantee at a living wage with benefits is an absolute first step to combatting the appeal of demagogues. The refusal by American and European center-left parties to endorse such a job guarantee makes them the BFF of right wing demagogues the world over. If you fear fascism, elect socialists, not center-left liberals.

Bernie Sanders is the only candidate with the historical, political, economic and institutional knowledge, experience and courage to guide America through the revolutionary changes that are needed. The day he is elected will be the day that the real fight begins.

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