Plastic politics

Rónán Burtenshaw


Whomever wins the US presidential election, the majority of people will lose. Change will come from the streets, not the seat of power, argues Rónán Burtenshaw.

As the liberal left in the United States ratchets up the rhetoric against the Romney-Ryan ticket, it is difficult not to be struck by the seismic shift in the narrative of this election from 2008. Gone is the optimism and idealism of a recreated Camelot that possessed many four years ago.

Replacing it is the same lesser-evilism that Democrats and their partisans have wielded since FDR came to power in the early 1930s. Mitt Romney is cast again as the evil at the gates, from which civilisation must be defended by mobilising support for President Barack Obama.

Under Obama, the “evil” might be less potent, but not by nearly as much as they would have you believe. Despite closing “black sites”, his administration refused to prosecute those who had committed torture in the previous decade, eventually granting them full immunity.

It has continued the programme of extraordinary rendition, outsourcing torture and human-rights abuses to states whose practices receive less press coverage. He has intensified the US’s drone war against alleged militants, giving orders that have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.

In South Waziristan, Pakistan, as well as destroying schools, hospitals and homes, this has amounted to a four-year campaign of terror against the local population. The journalist Conor Friedersdorf recently on the Atlantic went to the region to speak with those who fall under the administration’s conception of “collateral damage”.

His article, which is essential reading, finds a civilian population “waking up screaming in the night, hallucinating about drones”, living in daily fear that it might be the person next to them at the market, in the mosque or on the road that is the target of the killing machines that buzz in the sky. “After the drone attacks,” a resident noted, “it is as if everyone is ill. Every person is afraid of the drones.”

“Under Obama, the ‘evil’ might be less potent, but not by nearly as much as liberals would have you believe.”

The perpetuation of this campaign by a Nobel peace prize recipient is callous, but it is also the rule rather than the exception for a president who keeps a “kill list” of those to be executed without trial. And it is something the administration has doubled down on during his re-election bid.

When questioned last week about the extrajudicial murder of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old US citizen and son of the al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, Robert Gibbs, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign, replied that “he should have had a more responsible father”.

The domestic policies have been as worthy of contempt as those pursued abroad. The extension of the Patriot Act, the passage of the National Defense Authorisation Act and the war on whistleblowers (which has spread wide enough beyond Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks to include a student activist in this college) together amount to an attack on civil liberties every bit as pronounced as that waged under George W Bush.

In the economy, the man whose largest backers in 2008 included Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and CitiGroup has consistently protected the interests of the wealthy. As Matt Stoller noted in Salon, the net result of his four-year stewardship is that, during the Obama administration, “corporate profits have recovered dramatically and surpassed previous highs whereas home equity levels, a key indicator of working- and middle-class wealth, have remained static. That $5-7 trillion [€3.9tn-€5.4tn] lost by Main Street did not come back, whereas financial assets and corporate profits did.”

Between 1989 and 2010 US productivity levels grew 62.5%, according to the Economic Policy Institute, while real hourly wages for both private and public sector workers grew only 12%. Since 1978, CEO pay at American firms has risen 725%, more than 127 times faster than worker pay over the same time period as wages have flatlined.

Those who listened to the shimmering rhetoric of the 2008 presidential campaign or the apple-pie narrative of a fighter for the middle class on the stump in 2012 might expect that things have gotten a little better under Obama. They would be wrong.

Compensation for chief executives at American companies grew 15% in 2011 after a 28% rise in 2010, while real median household income in March 2012 was down $4,300 (€3,327) since Obama took office in January 2009 and down $2,900 (€2,243) since the June 2009 start of the economic recovery.

“The man whose largest backers in 2008 included Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and CitiGroup has consistently protected the interests of the wealthy.”

It has been worse for the African-American community, with the numbers in poverty, unemployment and underemployment skyrocketing since the “jobless recovery” began. While 12 million people in America are officially unemployed (many more have dropped off the radar as unofficially unemployed or are under-employed), a staggering 46.2 million people are living in poverty, a two-decade high.

Add this to the continuation of the bailout regime of ringfencing the assets of a powerful elite from repossession or market competition; the failure to prosecute Wall Street executives for criminal and racist fraud perpetuated by banks in the foreclosure swindle; rubberstamping assaults on public schools; and freezes to state and local workers’ wages, and you get a portrait of a man who represents the established plutocracy in American politics, not a change from it.

But, people going to the polls will ask, what is the alternative? A Republican ticket that despises the poor and the working class? A ticket that is anti-women, anti-gay and institutionally racist? Who would be more likely to go to war with Iran and massacre tens of thousands of innocent people in the process? No.

For the vast majority of people living in the US, and many more living abroad, a Mitt Romney presidency would be a disaster. In many ways, having Obama in office highlights to working and left-inclined people the limits of the Democratic party. I understand those voting for him tactically while remaining strongly critical.

But, as the late American socialist activist Hal Draper wrote, it is not the answer which is at the root of the problem in American politics, but the question. The choice offered to those voting on 6th November will be between two members of a political aristocracy – one which is removed from the populace and their interests and which is a vehicle for the advancement of super-rich businessmen, war profiteers and corporations.

Real change in American politics will not come from within that clique. Its elections are plastic politics – with trivialities elevated to titillate the masses of people, and differences between candidates framed in such a way as to exclude the issues where they maintain vast similarities from public debate. It is a Hollywood illusion of democracy where candy-floss candidates spar in a stage-managed mass-simplification.

“I understand those voting for him tactically while remaining strongly critical.”

This feeds into the popularity of American politics in Ireland. Its hallow razzmatazz is the perfect arena for a new “political junkie” phenomenon where people learn to treat politics as an abstraction and a hobby.

American politics can, for someone here, largely be reduced to debates about theory and principles that do not materially affect their lives. Particularly for the liberal majority here, it is politics as accessory, a way of projecting an image of the self as idealistic without having to sacrifice for it. That was certainly the case for me when I campaigned for Obama in 2008.

But there was also something substantial to the infatuation many young people had with him then, and lessons to be learned from it. Few of us acknowledge the existence of the kid in south-east Asia who stitches our shoes together or count the hours under the lash for the farm labourer in Peru who tends the coca fields before we drink a can of Coke.

But there is an enduring sense, in a world where the top two per cent of the population own over half of the aggregate wealth, that something is wrong. Those who drank the Obama Kool-Aid in 2008, myself included, wanted to believe that he could deliver a more just society and compassionate leadership. But even the most minor of egalitarian reforms ran into systemic obstacles. And most would never be attempted for the same reason.

The failures of the Obama administration helped to cure me of any illusions I had about the prevailing political system. In 2008, possessed by a belief in a personalising narrative about the evils of George W Bush, I believed that the system was fundamentally good, but its leader had to change.

“As the late American socialist activist Hal Draper wrote, it is not the answer which is at the root of the problem in American politics, but the question.”

In 2012, after four years of war, surveillance statism and corporate idolatry by the man who replaced him, I understand that real change in American politics will require more than the swapping of bosses.

It will require the abolition of the bosses’ system, which requires the existence of the ills I have identified in this article to reproduce itself: a system which needs unemployment, or a reserve army of labour, to keep wages low through competition; one which uses poverty to frighten workers into satisfaction with their ever-decreasing lot, and which had to produce a resolution of the crisis on the back of the vast majority of workers in order to restore a rate of profitability to businesses and businessmen; a system which mobilises the state to protect profits and the hegemony which secures them at home and abroad through its security apparatus and military.

As long as America remains the apex of that system, its presidential election will be about choosing the chief executive of global capital, and change will not come from the corridors of the White House.

It will come from the workplace: those workers in Walmart, the Chicago Teachers’ Union and the Wisconsin public service who went on strike against cuts to pay and conditions. It will come from the street: from movements like Occupy, which mobilised people in almost every major American city.

The election of Romney could probably make things worse. But, if you are looking for positive change in a world of such inequality and disenchantment, you will not find it in Obama or Washington.

No matter who is elected on 6th November, there will not be a happy ending to the Hollywood politics for the majority of people. Change will come from below, not from the seat of power. Amidst a sea of false hope and falser mutuality four years ago, the candidate Barack Obama did get something right: “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”