Friday, February 3, 2012

Political Backbone Awards: Dean Baker and Chris Hedges

1) The Center For Economic and Policy Research is a great resource for economic views that counter the mainstream dogma - Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot are both talented, insightful economists who have no patience for the neoliberal economic doctrine of uncontrolled markets and austerity-until-you-burst. Baker is a solid Keynesian, and in a sane world would lead some future President’s Council of Economic Advisors.
Baker makes an argument in his column “Do Progressives Have To Be Loser Liberals?” that the Left should have been constantly making for decades, and should start making constantly now: the conservative view that government “redistribution” takes away from those who have fairly earned wealth and gives it to the undeserving poor is a bunch of bull, because government policy is a primary determinant of the initial distribution in the first place -- and that giant corporations are the main beneficiaries. When the government “redistributes” wealth it is only correcting for its own flawed initial distribution, which is already a redistribution of wealth upwards from regular workers and consumers to corporate oligarchs:
“Anyone trying to understand the role of the government in the economy should know that whatever it does or does not do by way of redistribution is trivial compared with the actions it takes to determine the initial distribution. Rich people don’t get rich exclusively by virtue of their talents and hard work; they get rich because the government made rules to allow them to get rich.
“To take an obvious example, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services we spend close to $300 billion a year on prescription drugs. If drugs were sold in a free market, without government-granted patent monopolies, we would spend around $30 billion a year.
“The difference of $270 billion a year is more than five times as much money as is at stake with extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy. By making us pay far more for drugs, the government’s patent policy is redistributing a huge amount of money from ordinary people to the shareholders and top executives of the drug companies.”

He goes on to discuss how basic government policies like labor and monetary policy distort initial distributions in favor of the very wealthy. He concludes:
“If progressives restrict ourselves to fighting over the tax code, then we are playing in the sandbox. This is classic “loser liberalism.” The real battle is over setting the rules, not shuffling around a few crumbs after the fact.”
2) Chris Hedges believes in a supreme being, and I do not; it is one of our few points of disagreement.  He was arrested in New York during the Occupy Wall Street protests, and is currently suing the Obama administration over the National Defense Authorization Act, which he argues allows the military to indefinitely jail anyone it dubs a terrorist anywhere in the world. 
The mere title of his column “The Corporate State Will Be Broken” should demonstrate why I admire him -- it is a positive, courageous, determined, and realistically optimistic declaration. That is the most rational and productive response for these dark times. He rightly observes that our electoral system is thoroughly corrupted and controlled by corporate money: 
“Voting will not alter the corporate systems of power. Voting is an act of political theater... Give the people the illusion of choice. Throw up the pretense of debate. Let the power elite hold public celebrations to exalt the triumph of popular will. We can vote for Romney or Obama, but Goldman Sachs and ExxonMobil and Bank of America and the defense contractors always win.” 
And Hedges then makes a point about voting worth following, that you should find a way to vote your principles and not waste your precious vote on a corporate candidate from any party.  I am not among the rationalizers who argue that progressives have no choice but to vote for the lesser of two evils (much less those like the morally blind Bob Cesca who would also deny that the lesser evil is what it is -- still an evil).  Hedges says:
“In this year’s presidential election I will vote for a third-party candidate, either the Green Party candidate or Rocky Anderson, assuming one of them makes it onto the ballot in New Jersey, but voting is nothing more than a brief chance to register our disgust with the corporate state. It will not alter the configurations of power. The campaign is not worth our emotional, physical or intellectual energy.”
But Hedges then makes a conclusion that many people, including me, will disagree with -- that action in the electoral and legislative arena are pointless:
“Our efforts must be directed toward acts of civil disobedience, to chipping away, through nonviolent protest, at the pillars of established, corporate power.”

This is true -- we need marches and protests, as well as work in the sphere of civil society and in the culture generally, to advance a Left-wing agenda and promote democracy. But there is more to the story. Hedges interviews Occupy organizer Kevin Zeese, who presents compelling arguments about effective organizing. But Zeese makes a couple of points with implications that might be missed with all the focus on demonstrating. He points out that one group of people the Occupiers are trying to peel off are government workers, police, civil servants, federal employees, and the like. And he also notes that, when the Occupiers held general assemblies to discuss the demands they wanted to make, they realized that they shouldn’t do that yet, because “You don’t make demands until you have power. If you make demands too soon, you don’t demand enough and you can’t enforce the demand that you get. So if you get promised an election, you can’t enforce that the ballots are counted right, for example.” Demands would have to come later, the implication being that, at some point, the movement would have the power to make and enforce them. For now, Zeese said, the Occupiers were instead satisfied with making a statement of principles.
In other words, you have to peel off government workers in order to win over people who prop up the system of power, and indeed who, in making the system work, have power themselves. And in order to make demands and enforce them, you have to have some power of your own. As I’ve argued elsewhere, protests alone won’t advance progressive principles and policies; eventually you have to act in the political sphere of legislatures and elections too, or else you will remain impotent. If there is any lesson from the Civil Rights movement that we must learn, it is that: protests help to change the culture, but in the end they also must change configurations of power and the law. 

No comments:

Post a Comment