Liberal Complicity: On Not asking the Right Questions

“Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons.”

– Bertolt Brecht (1935)

“There’s an insecurity in the heart of American liberalism, a lack of faith in its own professed beliefs.”

– Jeffrey St. Clair (May 28, 2021)

The catastrophic inequality surrounding the covid pandemic, who gets it how badly, with grotesquely unequal mass economic pain, windfall profits for the rich, and everything it all reveals about structural injustice throughout our society. The political hysteria supporting evil authoritarian clowns’ leadership in major countries like USA, India and Brazil, among a long list of others. The resulting human death, ecological waste and brutal pain and loss, likely getting worse before they get better. How do we resist and rebel, rather than being co-opted, paralyzed, or swept away in such powerful tides of history?

Whether the subject of the day is the latest bloodletting of Palestine, with US-made weapons on a key frontier of the US empire, or the colorful corporate propaganda on your own home town, the limitations on what may be thinkable among liberals, Democrats and the corporate media wear us down, confusing, distracting and sometimes even temporarily defeating truth and common sense. The seeming paradox painfully expressed by Brecht’s epigram, in Writing the Truth; 5 Difficulties: “These are formidable problems for writers living under Fascism, but they exist … even for writers working in countries where civil liberty prevails.” Why do similar violent class and ethnic contradictions plague both so-called democracies and dictatorships?

In 1971 a powerful American corporate lawyer for the US Chamber of Commerce issued his urgent memorandum calling for responding to an “Attack on American Free Enterprise System”. Lewis Powell would later ascend to become a Supreme Court Justice under Nixon. His memo set the course for a multi-generational counter revolution. That 50-year hurricane of deregulation, tax cuts, privatization and exploding socioeconomic inequality built up the power system we face today, driving our galloping planetary catastrophe over the cliff. Right wing “think” tanks where no actual thinking gets done, but billions of dollars fund racist, patriarchal, archaic, dark age neofascist attacks on People. Federal and state courts conquered by corporate shysters in black robes declaring “original intent” of law as if there ever had been any such thing. Yet another spasm in our long, perverse constitutional history, framing and harnessing the power of conjoined state/religious zeal, capitalist dogmas, sexual anxieties, whiteness as property rights, and a bloody fetish for guns, to redefine in exclusionary terms who gets to be a “real American”. MAGA, in short.

Liberal American values and Democratic party efforts to organize in the face of the post-1970s onslaughts – on the few occasions they even show up and try! – generally failed us. We inescapably face the need to make radical, new and different choices about how we will try to survive in more effective, creative ways. What must we do to secure a future grounded in human rights and equity?

35 years ago this spring a neighbor told me the City of Detroit was planning to build the world’s biggest trash incinerator near our neighborhood. For the next 5 years we struggled against that monstrosity, before the words “environmental racism” (and environmental justice) were commonly applied to such ecological atrocities in oppressed People of Color communities. For most of the decade after that, I participated as a lawyer as much as I could in the EJ movement. This personal and political history has been foundational in my developing critique of liberalism. One can’t seriously advocate reduction and eventual elimination of the adverse, disparate racial impacts of pollution in front line communities – or, I’ve come to believe, effectively advocate much of anything that’s necessary under our truly desperate circumstances – without a critique of liberalism.

Liberalism was the political basis for the whole range of modern environmental laws passed in the 1970s under Nixon. Those statutes have been misused ever since to effectively “control” pollution, largely by legalizing multiple bureaucratic and technological strategies and regulatory capture-related techniques for concentrating it in oppressed black and brown communities. Once the Clean Air, Clean Water, National Environmental Protection and other Acts of those years were glorious victories of the Peoples movement of the 60s. But times, People and situations change dialectically, and new tools are desperately needed! Are we about to transcend the bankrupt liberal paradigm, get organized for justice, change the way we live and (to quote youth icon Defensa Zapatista) “make everything the way it should be”?

We better hope so! Defensa Zapatista understands and acts directly in her/their life, developing critical thinking, language, cultural power, and everything else available to live righteously in the face of the capitalist system’s oppression, exploitation and impending catastrophe, as acts of resistance and rebellion. Are we ready to do the same? In this spirit, and attempting to be mindful of difficulties in writing the truth under all manner of failed states, I propose a few questions regarding some of the great public issues of the day:

The January 6, 2021 Trump Insurrection

Liberal, Democratic party leaders face one of their first gut checks in prosecuting the perpetrators of the Rump insurrection against democracy on 1/6/21. FBI and Justice Department investigators have been building cases against individual perpetrators. Congress has been engaged in endless ‘tastes great’/’less filling’ pseudo-debates of a bipartisan national commission, or a Democratic Party sponsored committee, to establish the facts and respond to the ugly political realities of presidential support for violently attacking political opponents in an overt attempt to obstruct formal election procedures. Was the beer belly putsch only a forerunner of worse attacks to come by the racist and neofascist rightwing terror network? What are Joe Biden, Merrick Garland and the other representatives of the People’s law going to do about it? Who will be the independent prosecutor for 1/6/21?


Under appalling, cynical circumstances involving its prime minister’s corruption trial, its tightening diplomatic and state terror links to Saudi Arabia’s medieval head-chopping regime, and deep internal political instability, Israel recently rallied around the flag and attacked Palestinians in East Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount / Harm el Sharif. Israel refused to back off those intentional provocations after being threatened over them by Hamas. After the inevitable homemade rocket grenade launches, the settler colonial apartheid terror state formerly known as a democracy launched yet another of its pretextual mass murderous ‘retaliatory’ rocket wars against Gaza. Biden tried to justify it.

US public opinion (like Israeli civil peace itself!) has been tested and moved by repeated imperial Israeli military aggressions. People can distinguish between proportionally violent self-defense and Israel’s repeated assaults on Gaza. Will Biden, Anthony Blinken and other US foreign policy leaders stop funding Israeli’s bloody crimes? If not, where do they expect to find the moral courage, authority or standing to lead?

Colorful Local Rebranding of Racial Capitalism

Less immediately bloody than the Guernica-style slaughter in Gaza, but driven by much of the same Jared Kushner-type insanity of misapplying “real estate” anti-values to human life and dignity, the 10-year-old nonprofit Detroit Future City recently launched their latest continual rebranding campaign under the misappropriated title of “The State of Economic Equality in Detroit” . To the surprise of no one, they ‘discovered’ a LOT of inequity and inequality! They neglect to mention their own deeply foundational role in creating and exacerbating the problem. The ticklish racial capitalist situation epitomizes the immortal scene in Casablanca, where the complicit bureaucrat righteously declares he’s “shocked, shocked I tell you that there is gambling in this establishment!” and then collects his winnings.

In 2010 local political elites were desperate to reset Detroit’s development agenda after the onset of the Great Recession. A couple months after the US Social Forum brought 20,000 radicals to town in June, that fall the region’s corporate white supremacist power structure began to cobble together the cultural and political Vichy Detroit counter revolution and looting campaign that created the very grotesque economic inequality they now pretend to decry. “Shocked, I tell you!”

Funded by Kresge Foundation and their other outside white big bucks allies, fronted by former suburban mayor Bing, former emergency mis-manager Orr, and now more effectively by current suburban mayor Duggan, this “suite” (as Kresge honcho Rip Rapson called them) of settler-colonial domination tools paved the road to emergency management and today’s infrastructure wars, constitutional dysfunction and intensified racist “Detroit is back!” exploitation. The prime features of the very racial inequity they’ve just now ‘discovered’ and documented in another one of the colorful books they seem to specialize in. Shame.

On its face, our new debt-funded urban growth machine, borne from Detroit Works/Future City ideological framing for white supremacist, corporate-driven development, may seem not fairly comparable to Palestine’s bloody decades-long slaughter. But civil war, like all forms of violent othering, comes in many forms. In this context our post-MAGA violent civil strife is significantly a product of Christian-Zionist-dominionist ‘end times’ hatred and violence, while our ostensible liberal champions who should be prosecuting the bad guys and charting a new course, are instead trying to whitewash history, from Gaza to Grand River.Is the latest Detroit Future City rebranding a falsification of history, in the manner of the coverup of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre? Who are you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes? Can Detroit’s rising youth of color social justice movement’s change the world yet again, like the car, the assembly line, the CIO, the Treaty of Detroit, Motown and Techno music did?

Are we getting anywhere yet with the objective of asking the right questions?

The Racial Capitalist Hydra Never Sleeps

New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall may be on to the basic explanation for Detroit Future City’s latest efforts to change their neoliberal spots. He writes: “The past 12 months have seen a centrist countermobilization designed to strengthen a mainstream image of the Democratic Party and to block the power of the more radical left to set policy. New groups and digital publications include Persuasion, Counterweight, American Purpose, Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism and the Academic Freedom Alliance.”

It’s as shocking as the rigged roulette wheel in the backroom of Rick’s Café that at just this point in time, about a year after corporate Democratic liberals reportedly started conjuring how to sideline progressives, Detroit Future City has discovered a veritable shit ton of inequality in Detroit!

This local economic divide must have been heretofore somehow overlooked by someone. Else what would Detroit Future City’s latest report tell us that we didn’t already know? Mr. Edsall discusses in painful detail certain “transphobic” features of the corporate media-framed debate, like the biological vs. social determinants of gender identity, and whether only some or all cops are bastards. It never ceases to amaze me how liberals obsessively focus on what’s in our respective pants and our pathological fears of disorder (aka “life”), while barely noticing powerful corporate alliances’ structurally racist, well-funded and coordinated attempts to develop post-MAGA narratives on class and race that work to preserve and reproduce ‘normality’ and, not coincidentally, their own class power! Shocked, I tell you!

This essay has to end before capitalism does, so let’s end with a couple questions suggested by Wolfgang Streeck in How Will Capitalism End?:

Might this perhaps be what lies behind the colorful books of Detroit Future City?Before capitalism will go to hell, it will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way.” (p. 36)

And have any of their rebrandings ever critiqued white supremacy, corporate power or “Neoliberal ideological narratives”? If not, what are they good for? In truth, seizing on and policing such dominant narratives in Detroit is all Kresge / Detroit Works /Detroit Future City have ever offered (thus the continual rebrandings). Courtesy of corporate media myopia and narrow-minded ideology, it has succeeded time and again only in monopolizing the conversation and marginalizing real solutions.

Streeck explains that “morbid symptoms” of post-late capitalism “offer a euphemistic interpretation of the breakdown of structured order as the arrival of a free society built on individual autonomy, and of de-institutionalization as historical progress out of an empire of necessity into an empire of freedom (italics in original). For the [post-late capitalist] interregnum to continue, those living in it must be continually exhorted to experience the debris of what was once a capitalist society as an adventure playground for them to demonstrate their personal resourcefulness and with good luck get rich.” (p. 46) Kresge Foundation should shut down Detroit Future City, apologize to Detroit’s working class and pay reparations!

As the latest Detroit Future City ED gushes in their latest colorful book: “We have worked with the belief that we possess the ingenuity to find the “solve.” And Detroit will continue to pay the price, until we learn to think for ourselves!