Never Let a Good Waste Go to Crisis

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

It has been an article of faith during recent crises that temporary measures must be taken to bring about a return to normalcy, at which point a longer view can prevail. Following 9/11, the national security state that had been waning with the end of the Cold War was revived and given new prominence. Later, the Obama administration ‘held its nose’ as it bailed out the large banks, with the result being that the institutions that caused the crisis were fully restored and the balance of power and nature of ‘the economy’ were permanently altered.

In the absence of real crises, there have been contrived emergencies like Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction and ‘foreign interference’ in U.S. elections that served more targeted purposes and constituencies. The George W. Bush administration’s WMD fraud served the neocon’s political purposes by generating the fear and loathing needed to launch an elective war. And the Democrat’s Russiagate fraud redirected political energy toward restoration of the neocon and national security state political order. The latter represents where the national Democrats are politically today.

As might have been expected, these contrived crises have made resolving real crises that much more difficult. The UN environmental committee reports that were issued in 2018 and 2019 have fallen from the headlines, but the crises they detail haven’t been resolved. Taken together, they call for quick and far-reaching action to end dirty capitalist production and to radically reimagine how eight billion human beings can exist without destroying ourselves. By happenstance, the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated just how quickly adverse circumstances can impact human endeavors.

The ‘lesson’ from the pandemic is that life is fragile. And this fragility needs to be respected. Reorganizing the planet along narrow notions of human interests, as capitalism does, assumes knowledge that the pandemic and looming environmental crises demonstrate doesn’t exist. Ontologically speaking, the balance of what is known to what isn’t known must itself be known or acting in the world is indeterminate. Partial understanding is worse than no understanding when it motivates reckless actions.

In practical terms, agricultural self-sufficiency was long considered sacrosanct in international trade negotiations because any fool knows that whoever controls the flow of food controls the nation. In other words, there was a basis in human needs that guided the development of ‘supply chains’ before the Americans took the lead in the post-war period. It has been argued that food security facilitated the American posture that all trade is fungible. However, the inability to produce basic supplies in the current pandemic proves otherwise.

This is to make the point that the failures of the present were a long time in the making. And recognizing this has political implications right now. Lost down the memory hole is that it was the Clintonites— liberal Democrats from the PMC (professional managerial class), who have been the most ideologically committed to maintaining the capitalist order. This is to argue that the very worst that can be said about the Republicans can be true without elevating establishment Democrats. And it virtually guarantees that no matter who is elected in 2020, the political economy that will emerge from the other side will be more degraded than it was going into the pandemic.

True to crisis form, current political framing places short term measures to stabilize ‘the economy’ against its eventual restoration. Reforms, if there are to be any, are a luxury that ‘we’ can’t afford until after restoration has been completed. And once restoration has been completed, why take a risk on changes that ‘we’ can’t afford? For instance, here is Joe Biden— Barack Obama’s Vice-President during the multi-trillion dollar bailouts of Wall Street, explaining why capitalist healthcare is here to stay.

Here is a list of the New Deal programs developed to address many of the same economic problems that have been identified in the present. Were it not for the wholesale capture of the American political establishment by capitalist interests, these programs could provide a template to demonstrate how misplaced and inefficient capitalist employment is. However, at this point in history, Democrats are less likely to implement such a program than Republicans are.

The larger problem is that 2020 isn’t 1932. Resolving climate change, species extinction and depleted oceans requires fundamentally different forms of economic organization than capitalism can accommodate. This makes the guardians of the status quo, the restorationists of the neoliberal order, the real radicals of this age. What they seek to restore wasn’t working before the pandemic struck. Democrats are mirroring Donald Trump’s environmental arson by insisting that environmental programs are too expensive.

What the New Deal demonstrated is that government can be a tool for solving social problems. The obvious answer to the insistence that we can’t afford to address them is that the larger ‘we’ can’t afford not to. Solving economic problems can solve political problems by distributing economic power away from those who use it to control political outcomes. Here is economist Stephanie Kelton explaining how government funding actually works.

Bill Clinton was more effective at destroying the logic and institutions of the New Deal than Ronald Reagan. In key respects, Reagan was the Donald Trump of his age— a doddering, retrograde, old white Republican who was less formally ideological than he was a servant of his constituency. Bill Clinton’s triangulation was seen by Democrats as a tactical end run around Reaganism to win election. But Mr. Clinton and the New Democrats meant to bury the New Deal, and they did.

As political scientist Thomas Ferguson argued at the time, there was a pecuniary explanation for Bill Clinton’s miraculous conversion from JFK Democrat to Wall Street Republican. Political campaigns cost money, Wall Street has the money, ergo Wall Street became the New Democrats’ constituency. While the New Democrat’s are still viewed as a benevolent force by Democrats, Bill Clinton’s Wall Street friendly state-corporatism has been causally related to every crisis that followed.

Joe Biden came to be the Democrats’ presidential choice in 2020 through the political groundwork laid with Russiagate. Russiagate was a politically motivated fraud from charges of collusion to assertions of Russian state interference in U.S. elections. Democrats needed cover for their service to capital in the wake of their 2016 loss to Donald Trump. It was through restoking ancient (Cold War) fears that they have been able to place ‘defeating Trump’ ahead of policy priorities.

Not long after Mr. Trump entered office, actor Morgan Freeman made a widely distributed video at the behest of a veritable who’s who of national security state officials claiming that the United States was under attack from Russia. While a few rank-and-file Democrats appear to know that the central charges of Russiagate fell apart upon examination, fewer still appear to understand the broader political implications of their leadership’s exercise in agitprop.

Given how, and by whom, the Russiagate charges were made, a number of red flags should have been raised that weren’t. The first is that national security state officials have no legitimate role meddling in electoral politics. In theory, they serve elected officials— they don’t participate in choosing them. Second, why would they align with the Clintonite wing of the Democratic Party in any case? And third, what was the political logic behind making Morgan Freeman their public face?

For those of us from before the time of iGadgets, Mr. Freeman’s clumsy effort at Cold War fearmongering was / is amateur hour. The genre was standard fair in American high schools in the 1970s when teachers were too hung over or disinterested to ‘teach.’ However, it worked as intended amongst the professional managerial class who have their psychologies and class interests tied to maintaining the status quo.

As irony and the broad distribution of agitprop under the guise of news have it, the distance between working class Democrats in South Carolina and the executive offices of The New Yorker, NPR and the New York Times runs from service to, to deference to, power. It is hardly incidental that the establishment press 1) was all-in on Russiagate and 2) no one lost their job when it all fell apart.

This isn’t to overstate the case. The Democrat’s base in the South was built before Russiagate was conceived. What Russiagate accomplished was to tie official power— the same power used to launch gratuitous wars, militarize the police and build the carceral state, to popular understanding of the Democrats as a moderating force. This ultimately worked to draw Southern Democrats to the known quantity of Joe Biden, despite his three plus decades of working against their interests.

The added benefit of the red-menace storyline is the image of red hoards storming the New York Stock Exchange demanding Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. By associating expenditures in the public interest with a pinkish demeanor, the fact that capitalist versions of these programs are unworkable frauds that cost twice as much and don’t work is hidden. As with capitalist healthcare, the point is to appeal to prejudice, not to rebut these programs on their merits.

Theories are emerging that the pandemic will make people nostalgic for normalcy instead of radicalized. But normalcy isn’t on the menu. Environmental crises will soon be as insistent as the pandemic if they aren’t addressed. Infrastructure spending and building high-speed rail— the Democrat’s perpetual fallback plan, won’t create many jobs and will be as environmentally destructive as Donald Trump’s deregulation. ‘Green capitalism’ is farcical, as intended.

The political path forward is, as always, to pick up the pieces as power and internal contradictions lay waste to the established order. The American fantasy of attack from without or within— against which dominant institutions were conceived and built, was always the wrong target. A tiny virus demonstrated how capitalist efficiency creates engineered helplessness. Environmental problems are about to make the same point in ways that won’t be nearly so easy to manage.

The problem with Joe Biden is the same as with Donald Trump. The collective we who depend on functioning societies in a livable world don’t have four or eight more years to waste on neocon wars and capitalist economic dysfunction. Having either person as president has different meaning now than it would have four or eight years ago. The pandemic has demonstrated our fragility. If the choice looks like more than end-of-empire rot to you, vote your conscience. I just don’t see it.


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