Whither the American Left?

Wednesday, 15 July 2009 08:25 By Bernard Chazelle, Truthout | name.

Whither the American Left?

    The triumph of neo-liberalism on the other side of the Atlantic may be explained - like almost everything else in American history - by inflation and racial conflict.

    The 1970's were years of historic compromise: Blacks were integrated into the great American family in a legal sense, but at the price of abandoning all social demands. The "stagflation" that shook the economy catalyzed a process that was to extend over the next three decades and dispute all the social breakthroughs of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.

    That evolution would withstand the power alternations between parties so well that the United States would finish the century with a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, anchored firmly to the right of Republican Richard Nixon.

    What happened? The great project of the American right, constructed in the New York hallways of Bill Buckley's National Review, saw its hour of triumph with Reagan's election in 1980.

    A "Righting" of the Left

    Twelve years later, Clinton appropriated Reagan's themes and became the bard of neo-liberalism. He kept the marginal income tax rate at half of what it had been under Nixon. He eliminated social assistance for 9 million poor children.

    With help from the financial bubble, he presided over the greatest transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich since 1929. The income of the richest one percent of Americans doubled, while that of the median tranche rose by 15 percent only (over eight years in constant dollars). The Wal-Mart founder's family possesses a personal fortune equal to the collective personal fortune of 120 million Americans.

    Clinton doubled the prison population compared to what it had been under Reagan. Accused of being "soft on crime" during his campaign, he went to attend the execution of a mentally handicapped man, famous for having asked the guard who served him his last meal whether he could keep his yoghurt for later.

    Welfare Was Supposed to Reinforce Poverty and Consequently Had to Be Subjected to Merit Criteria.

    In 1996, along with the great "Welfare Reform Act," Clinton signed the death certificate for the American left. The attractive idea was: since welfare reinforces poverty, let's submit it to merit criteria.

    In this politically savvy marriage of solidarity and common sense, the key word became "responsibility."

    Hidden therein, however, as though it were totally insignificant, is what historian Tony Judt has described as the return of the spirit of "England's New Poor Law" of 1834.

    As in Dickens's England, citizenship became conditional. So there was an outright assault on the primary idea of social justice, that is, the absolute right to dignity. When one is hungry, well then, one asks for alms.

    In its wake, the unconditional right of membership in the community disappeared also. Society became a club in which one is a member "under certain conditions." The images of Hurricane Katrina would reveal the cruel meaning of that conditionality to the whole world.

    On top of this "righting" of the left came submission to the capitalist schema of historical determinism. Echoing Margaret Thatcher's famous "Tina" ("There is No Alternative"), New York Times editorialist Tom Friedman explained enthusiastically that once a country puts on the "Golden Straitjacket," "its political choices get reduced to Pepsi or Coke."

    It's not the "End of History" Fukuyama proclaimed, but the end of politics. The Faustian neo-liberal pact is to barter away mastery of our collective destiny for a promise of prosperity, a promise that moreover often proves illusory. In close to half the world's countries, income per person in 2000 was inferior to what it had been in 1990.

    The Cult of Capitalism

    Capitalism or neo-liberalism is an essentially self-referential dogma. As the sole goal of the economy is to satisfy its own needs for growth, the citizen is no longer anything but a passive consumer.

    In the United States, the dogma tolerates social conflicts only insofar as they remain orthogonal to economic fault lines. Thus, we may debate abortion at our leisure, but social assistance is a "fiscally imprudent" idea. Of course, free market capitalism is no more an economic theory than greed is a theory of property. It is primarily hypnosis.

    The Republicans at least propose choices: one may be for or against tax reductions.

    The Democrats promise "vibrant communities" and "growing prosperity." What party do you have to belong to, or what planet, to not wish for such things?

    Just as science should be falsifiable, ideologies should be deniable. One will notice that Democratic platitudes - as though by miracle - perfectly marry "Tina" dogma to the opportunisms of the moment.

    The United States is at a turning point of its history. The uni-polar hour is coming to an end, but who will be able to snatch the country away from its much-prized Nineteenth Century values, such as the power of gaps in wealth to spur emulation and the cult of military force?

    Obama: Beneath the Center-Left Rhetoric, Rightwing Policy

    Obama? It's too soon to express a definitive opinion, but the enthusiasm he arouses is largely unmerited.

    His charm, tone and intelligence captivate. The symbolic power of a black American president is undeniable. Nonetheless, the acrobatic quality of his approach, masking right-leaning policy under center-left rhetoric, invites caution.

    His rejection of torture is categorical, eloquent and in flagrant contradiction to his support for the "rendition" program that sends terrorist suspects to be tortured in friendly countries. His populist remarks against Wall Street excesses translate into measures that, in fact, reward those excesses. His soothing speech in Cairo is served along with increased bombing of Pashtun lands. His plan for withdrawal from Iraq goes hand in hand with a defense budget $20 billion higher than Bush's.

    Barack Obama is the most talented politician of his generation. His mastery of the straddle is formidable, but the prolonged practice of this dangerous exercise rarely ends well. For the American left, "Yes we can" runs a strong risk of proving to be a Siren song.

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    Translation: Truthout French language editor This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Last modified on Wednesday, 15 July 2009 09:26