Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Means and Ends

It is obvious to anyone remotely "left wing" that the Republican Party is not an agent of progressive change. But if this is straightforward, the issue of how to assess the Democratic Party from a left-wing perspective seems to perplex many liberals, "progressives", left-leaning people, etc.

A common problem with most left-leaning assessments of the Democrats is that they run together two importantly distinct (but nonetheless related) matters: fundamental goals and tactical strategy. Or more simply put, ends and means are not distinguished from one another. The result is a distortion: "politics" itself is transformed into narrow electioneering strategy and PR rather than a subject about how to change the status quo.

This is what I mean. At best, the Democratic Party could only ever be a mere means for progressive change. That's it. Ostensibly, we elect representatives because we think they are most likely to carry out changes that we want to see. We don't elect representative or parties for their own sake, but for the sake of what they do.

Thus, the ascendancy to power of the Democrats should never be taken to be an end in itself; it must be seen merely as a potential means to achieving other goals. And, of course, it is always an open question whether or not some particular means are actually effective in bringing about some particular ends. There is no a priori way to know whether some X is a good means of bringing about some Y; the only way to know about such things is to try and see.

So, if left-leaning people should support the Democratic Party at all, it should be because it acts in their interests to bring about the sort of society left-leaning people endorse. In other words, left-leaning people should support the Democrats only on the condition that it acts as the best means available for bringing about left-wing change.

Now it should never be taken to be self-evident that the Democrats are the best means to winning left-wing change. It would be extraordinarily conservative and dogmatic to claim, in defiance of any evidence to the contrary, that the Democrats must always be and remain the best means of progressive change. Unfortunately, whether or not they realize it, many liberal pundits are conservative and dogmatic in precisely this way.

Rather soon, if not already, many liberals and "progressives" will begin to panic about the possibility of a Republican victory in the November elections.

We'll hear a lot about the Tea Baggers, Republican idiocy, and the dangers of allowing Republican majorities to re-emerge in Washington. The basic idea is that our fear of the Tea Baggers should carry the day here: no further reflection or thought is required to assess our present political situation.

But notice what's missing from the demand above that we go all out to aid Democrat incumbents attempting to dodge anti-incumbent anger. There is nothing said about the rather straightforward claim above about means and ends. It is merely assumed that the Democrat's control of Congress is good thing in itself. But should we really just assume that this is so? Is this really self-evident?

As I said above, the only way to know whether or not some entity is a good means to achieving some end is to try and see how it works. Here, recent events are indispensable. The Democrats won crushing victories over the Republicans in 2006 and 2008. By January of 2009, they had a popular young President in the White House, punishing majorities in the House, a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate, and millions of Americans who were extremely eager for things to change.

But what happened?
  1. Rather than a rupture with the politics of the Bush Administration, the first order of business was to continue its financial policy. The Bush Administration's Paulson Plan of funelling billions of dollars to financial institutions was adopted whole-heartedly. Wall Street got billions in aid whereas ordinary people got the tough medicine of "free markets" and austerity. Given that Obama's cabinet is basically composed of Goldman Sachs alumni, this shouldn't be entirely surprising.
  2. Consider the healthcare bill. As Doug Henwood has pointed out, "the individual mandate has its origins in the Nixon administration’s response to Teddy Kennedy’s single-payer bill in the early 1970s. The insurance marketplace has its roots in the American Enterprise Institute’s response to Bill Clinton’s healthcare scheme." Rather than allowing ordinary people a say, Obama proscribed single-payer from the onset and allowed industry lobbyists to craft the legislation. The Democrat leadership in the Senate empowered Max Baucus to oversee the bill, the man who received the largest dollar amounts of campaign contributions from insurance companies in 2008.
  3. Take education policy. Obama has continued and expanded the ideas underpinning Bush's disastrous corporate "No Child Left Behind" policy by entrenching standardized testing, charter schools, and attacking teachers unions. Again, as Henwood pointed out, "Arne Duncan, his education secretary, has declared in terms indistinguishable from Milton Friedman’s that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to the New Orleans school system because it furthered that quasi-privatisation agenda."
  4. Rather than tax the rich and spend on the things that matter (as Obama hinted in the campaign), Obama and the Democrats have presided over punishing cuts to vital social institutions and have even led the charge to eviscerate Social Security and Medicare. As if that wasn't bad enough, Obama even had the audacity to propose spending freezes on everything except military spending. Now it is unclear whether the Democrats will even allow the egregious Bush tax breaks for the super-rich expire.
  5. On the environmental front, the ACES bill passed, but only after industry loaded it up with goodies and removed all of the provisions that might actually do the environment some good. Many environmentalists correctly took it to be worse than no bill at all. Worse than this, however, was Obama's 180 on offshore drilling, which came, unfortunately for him, right before the worst offshore oil disaster in recent history. And to put the icing on the cake, Obama and the Democrats couldn't even be bothered to make BP pay for the mess they made.
  6. Despite loads of support from organized labor, Obama and the Democrats reneged on their promise to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. Contrary to the spirit of his electrifying campaign speeches to union members, Obama didn't even try to get the bill to pass. The Democrats comfortably let the bill die, in deference to anti-union, corporate laws already in place. If the Democrats are comfortable allowing unionization to continue to be illegal in large parts of the US, it's because they care more about their support from business than they do workplace democracy. If they know labor won't vote GOP, why not just continue to screw them and compete for campaign dollars from viscously anti-union corporations?
  7. Despite the fact that record numbers of black Americans turned out in support of Obama in 2008, black unemployment figures are reaching heart-stopping levels and show no signs of letting up. The social misery visited upon people of color was also made more acute by the massive loss of wealth due to the predatory subprime mortgage scam. Again, no resolute Federal intervention to protect the assets of homeowners was pursued, although more than $787 Billion was spent protecting the assets of the largest financial institutions in the country.
  8. Rather than curtailing American imperialism abroad, it has expanded under the Democratic congress, particularly in Afghanistan where drone bombings have increased substantially. Wikileaks, which has quickly passed from the mainstream media's short attention span, confirmed many of the grim impressions already gleamed from the situation there. Although hardly mentioned, the escalation of American military presence in Latin America has increased under Obama.
  9. One of the only positive things to come out of the Democrat ascendancy has been the Stimulus Bill, which was described almost uniformly by economists as tepid and much too small. This isn't quibbling over "ideological purity"; the fact is that if you have a 2 foot wide hole in your wall, you don't cover 4 inches of it and say you've finished the job. The fact that unemployment has continued to grow speaks to the inadequacy of the stimulus, as states continue to lay off workers, cut public transporation services (the first step to a green society), slash library and education budgets, and close schools. And also let us not forget that the stimulus bill included tax-breaks for the wealthy that was included to appease the most right-wing elements in the Democratic party. If you don't think that the money existed for more ambitious public spending see 1. above.
Given everything that has happened in the best of all possible circumstances for the Democrats (massive majorities, filibuster-proof senate, popular president), how can anyone really believe that voting for, supporting, and funding the Democrats is really all there is to politics?

When do we say "enough is enough"?

The rational conclusion to draw here is that the Democrats are part of the problem, not the solution. The rational conclusion is that channeling all of our efforts and resources to the Democrats is a bit like casting our efforts into political black hole. The answer isn't to simply vote a different way; the answer here is that we need to look at other means of struggling for the things that matter, like fighting for a green society that might allow us to avert ecological catastrophe, or getting single-payer health care.

History is instructive here.

As Peter Camejo observed, "every major gain in our history, even pre-Civil War struggles such as the battles for the Bill of Rights, to end slavery, and to establish free public education -as well as those after the Civil War, have been the product of direct action by movements independent of the two major parties and in opposition to them".

Even if the Democrats were to hold onto every single seat in November, the task of the Left remains the same: build the movements and struggles capable of demanding (of the entire political system) that things change, whether or not those atop ruling institutions like it or not.

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