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SHADOW-GOVERNMENT RULE MAY BE REAL:
Bait and Switch: Using Diversity to Disguise Inequality
First published in Empire Burlesque earlier today, 27 August 2009
The American elite figured things out a long time ago: you can have "left-wing politics," "liberal politics," "progressive politics," anything you please -- as long as what is actually practiced is "right-wing politics."
Walter Benn Michaels explores the curious modern sociopolitical concept of "respect," which is being appropriated by both left and right as a convenient diversion from dealing with the increasing, crushing imbalance of class and wealth in society.
While noting -- and duly lauding -- the (relative) progress made against endemic racism, homophobia and misogyny, Michaels points out this progress, such as it is, has come because it does not threaten the overweening power and privilege of the elite. In fact, some maligned, repressed and persecuted groups of citizens are falling even farther behind: the poor, and those once called the working class.
True; and one perhaps not irrelevant fact that leaps to mind here is that Martin Luther King Jr. was not assassinated until he started talking about economic injustice faced by all citizens in a militarized state waging unjust wars around the world. Michaels continues:
For 30 years now, in both the US and UK, there has been nothing remotely resembling anything that could be called "left-wing politics," if "left-wing" can be understood as a concern for a more just and equal society.
Here is another key problem of our day: almost everything that is called "left-wing politics" is actually a fairly brutal form of right-wing politics. Hence, all the nutty criticism of Barack Obama as some kind of "far-left" socialist, when he is of course an ardent, open champion of our financial and militarist elites. And the so-called "leftist" government of New Labour in the UK is another glaring example; this "party of the working class" has gone where even Maggie Thatcher feared to tread to coddling big business, waging aggressive war, and building up a police state-style apparatus of authoritarian power. For 30 years now, in both the US and UK, there has been nothing remotely resembling anything that could be called "left-wing politics," if "left-wing" can be understood as a concern for a more just and equal society; we have had -- and still have -- only far-right and center-right politics. Back to Michaels:
Micheals then takes on the popular -- if incredibly tepid -- "progressive" reaction to the growing inequalities in the system. There is now a movement decrying -- again, rightly -- the cultural prejudices that the comfortable exhibit more and more openly against the poor. This is particularly acute in the UK, where all are invited to sneer at the "chavs" and their clothes, their accents, their tastes, etc. Now some earnest progressives are fighting back against this prejudice, as evidenced in the collection of essays published by the Runnymede Trust: Who Cares about the White Working Class?
Again, Michaels lauds the sentiment behind the collection: we should treat the mores and cultural expressions of the working class with the same kind of respect we are urged to show toward ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups. But, once again, says Michaels, these sentiments are fine as far as they go -- but they don't get at the heart of the matter:
This dynamic surely played a part in at least some of the support that Barack Obama received in the last election from "progressives." For in his stated policy positions, Obama offered very little that was "progressive." He was for continuing the War on Terror on Bush's terms, winding down the war in Iraq more or less on the schedule Bush had negotiated, then expanding the war in Afghanistan and extending it into Pakistan. He threw his support behind Bush's plan to bail out Wall Street. He took to the bully pulpit to scold black fathers for their failings, and black people in general for blaming the system for their problems. He made campaign appearances with homophobic preachers, while throwing over his own pastor and long-time friend. He surrounded himself with advisers from Wall Street. He pledged to increase the size and reach and power of the War Machine. And so on and so forth. He was, if anything, well to the right of, say, Bill Clinton in 1992 -- and Bill Clinton in 1992 was the most right-wing Democratic candidate since Woodrow Wilson.
Obama's "progressivism" consisted almost entirely of the symbolism of his mixed-race heritage and personal history. There was very little in his actual policy positions to lead one to believe that he would be -- or wanted to be -- anything other than a dutiful servant of the power structure. But many people voted for him because they wanted to use the symbol of his person to make a statement about-- and a stand against -- racism in American society. Again, this is an understandable and laudable sentiment; who of enlightened mind does not want to take a stand against racism? But this symbolic act was, to use Michael's terms, empty of genuine political content. For as we have seen, Obama's rule has been characterized not by "change," but by a remarkable degree of "continuity" with his predecessor.
But as Michaels notes, race was ever one of the most potent tools for obscuring the harsh imbalance at the heart of American society:
The American elite figured things out a long time ago: you can let people do anything they want, say anything they want, have a wide-open society -- as long as no one seriously threatens to upset the golden applecart of power and privilege. Or to put it another way, you can have "left-wing politics," "liberal politics," "progressive politics," anything you please -- as long as what you actually practice is "right-wing politics."
We are seeing this dynamic in its rawest state with the health-care "reforms," which have turned into yet another gigantic boondoggle for powerful corporations, despite the clear wishes of a large majority of Americans for something totally different. But it is a current that runs through -- and defines -- the entire political system today.
Chris Floyd has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, working in the United States, Great Britain and Russia for various newspapers, magazines, the U.S. government and Oxford University. Floyd co-founded the blog Empire Burlesque, and is also chief editor of Atlantic Free Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This column is republished here with the permission of the author.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on August 27, 2009.
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