Sunday, June 17, 2012

Unger is Right: the Left Must Defeat Obama

There's good stuff in the Unger statement about the purpose of society and government pointing towards the development of human capabilities, and the need to pay for education that does this.  Then he drops the bomb around 6:17 that got us the Huffpo headline, "Roberto Unger, Obama's Former Harvard Law School Professor, Says The President 'Must Be Defeated'

Here's what he says, after 6'10"
President Obama must be defeated. He has failed to advance the progressive cause in the United States. He has spent trilliions of dollars to rescue the moneyed interests, and has left workers and homeowners to their own devices. He has subordinated the broadening of economic and educational opportunity to the important but secondary issue of access to health care, in the mistaken belief that he would be spared a fight.  He has disguised his surrender with an empty appeal to tax justice.  He has delivered the politics of democracy to the rule of money. He has reduced justice to charity. His policy, is financial confidence and food stamps.  He has evoked the politics of handholding. But no one changes the world without a struggle.  Unless he is defeated, there cannot be a contest for the reorientation of the Democratic party as a vehicle of a progressive alternative in the country.   There will be a cost for his defeat, in judicial and administrative appointments. The risk of military adventurism, however, under the rule of his opponents, will be no greater than it would be under him.  Only a political reversal can allow the voice of democratic prophecy to speak once again in American life.  Its speech is always dangerous. Its silence is always fatal.
This is all quite right - except for the part about the Democrats becoming progressive if Obama is defeated.  Bit if it makes the chronic, semi-permanent fear vote for the Dem candidate feel any better, Unger is calling for a strike on the Democratic party that is nothing less than what the Tea Party did to the Republicans.  But it must go far beyond that.

When I began this blog in 2006, most people assumed that the fortunes of the working- and middle-classes went up and down with the business cycle, but that the overall trend was up.  Now over five years later, studies of the inequality boom have made it clear to anyone who reads that the gains of economic growth have gone largely to the very top, and to an almost unimaginable degree.

Last week, a Federal Reserve survey got wide attention for quantifying the large decline in net worth and the boom in student debt, among other things. "Family Net Worth Drops to Level of Early '90s, Fed Says," was the NYT headline.   The reversal of the democratizing trends of the post-World War II period is now entrenched.  Peter Coy’s extrapolation of the Fed study shows that by this measure at least, any progress over the past 30 years has been wiped out.
Felix Salmon adds,
The fact is that household net worth was pretty inadequate even at the top of the housing bubble in 2007. Families need a place to live, and if you strip out the housing component of the net-worth calculation, the median US family has barely any net worth at all. Certainly nothing they can retire on. This of course is why Social Security is so important: with the recent drop in net worth, there’s no realistic chance that the median US family will ever save up enough to live on when they’re no longer earning money.

It’s another sign of our death-wish culture that a bipartisan coalition of business and political leaders is trying to cut social security, complains endlessly about the cost of remaining defined benefit pension plans, and has helped Obama be the first president in postwar history to preside over adecline of public-worker employment  that has undermined the recovery.  Although Democrat presidents always preside over more private sector job creation than Republicans, Obama’s economic performance has put him barely ahead of the two-faced predator Mitt Romney, and could cost him his job.
Should Obama lose his job? Yes.  Betrayal of core values cannot be rewarded with a second term. And there is no other way to end the shameful policies and the politics of betrayal.

Thirty seconds of thought about my core values include the rejection of targeted killings of Muslims in their own sovreiggn countries with flying robots, the rejection of incarceration without trial and of warrentless surveillance, and the rejection of our new royalism--beyond the social Darwinism of the 1890s or 1990s--that sees the financial and technological 0.1% as the Great Creators, to the exclusion of the labor and creativity of ordinary people.  Obama is not only indecisive and confused: he actively supports freakonomics, nudging, and other neo-aristocratic quantoid bollocks while hoping, in the same pathetic hope of the last two generations of Democrat party stars, that these slightly appeased elites will get around at some point to endowing the rest of us with a Great Society.  History refutes this view at every turn.  This is what Unger meant by change requiring struggle.
The Obama effect has been to eliminate turnaround ideas from the national scene.   Acceptable progressive ideas are reduced to calls for a short-term debt-based government stimulus from leading figures like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz so that we can at least stop sinking.  Rebuilding and moving ahead is beyond conception. David Brooks can absurdly blame the welfare state for the sins of finance with total impunity because there is no vision of the welfare state --as agent of the developmental society -- that he needs to reckon with.

The June elections, particularly the attacks on city pensions in California and the retention of the anti-union radical Scott Walker as Wisconsin’s governor,  confirm the following features of this national situation. I plop then down with deliberate crudeness.   I do this because only if we see these features as our core reality, our new normal and not as a temporary deviation from who we really are, will we be able to take the measure of what to do.
Obviously I am not denying contest, contradiction, and countervailing tendencies: I am trying to describe the current core of the established system.

1. Socially speaking, the United States is the worst of the world’s wealthy economies. It is the most unequal, has the greatest concentration of wealth at the top, and has the rich world’s rock-bottom level of class mobility.  The U.S. is the New Old Europe.
2.The U.S. is a plutocracy or “plutonomy” in a Citigroup consulting neologism.  It is no longer a middle-class democracy in the post-war sense.  A major symptom is that financial power can defeat all familiar forms of political mobilization (John Nichols on the Wisconsin vote), with Citizens United as its constitutional platform.  The U.S. is Europe’s New Latin America.
3. The two national political parties are a Conservative Party and a Radical Party – on the radical right (Ian Masters).  The U.S. lacks a moderate social democratic party or even a reliable centrist party.  Compare the recently departed conservative French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s modest increase of social security retirement age to Democrats’ leadership in eliminating defined-benefit pensions for public employees in various local jurisdictions: US Democrats are conservatives on issues where Sarkozy was a centrist. Our respectable Conservative Party , the Democrats, function as the janitors of the Radical Party, the Republicans. Janitorial work consists of honorable caring for common assets like schools on behalf of people who can simply use the assets without maintaining them. When Democratic presidents replace Republicans, they repair tax systems that have been shredded, restore economic growth rates, pay down the debts run up by profligate Republican giveaways.   Like patient homemakers for spouses who use irrationality as mode of rule, they soothe hurt feelings and get people back to the dinner table and in good enough shape to return to work—albeit for lower wages and benefits.  As the Republicans’ janitorial staff, the Democrat party has no story about itself or about the society it wants (Etzioni at the Ian Masters link above: when Democrats where asked in a focus group about their party's main message, they could not say what it was.) This has been true since George McGovern’s presidential defeat in 1972, forty years ago.   In the 1970s, a generation of New Democrats appeared to manage the decline of the party into service status to the Republican paradigm.  Exhibit A was Jerry Brown, once and current governor of California, whose entire political philosophy now consists of reducing the state budget deficit to zero.  Bill Clinton became the most powerful of this group that, now in their 70s, continue to set strategies that insure that our Conservative Party is also our weaker party.  Obama governs on these terms, exhibited by his failure even to mount a fight against plutonomy front-man Gov. Scott Walker in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall.
4. The U.S lacks the culture and practice of solidarity or mutual support that would its poor and middle classes to progress in spite of predatory rule. After decades of “bowling alone” most of us lack the basic skills of self-governance—exerting serious systematic effort to understand accurately what others are saying, refusing the polarizing, othering, demonization, and casting enemies into the flames in all the ways that prevent consensus or truce.  Democracy now lacks American cultural soil.   The state of the US middle classes is historically distinctive and needs to be analyzed as such. It is a post-middle class, and it is post-democratic. It is not authoritarian in the same way as was parts of the German or Spanish population during the 1930s.  But it appears to be as profoundly confused, disoriented (Luce, Hedges-Sacco), perhaps dissociative as those countries' majorities at that time.  It has exhausted itself by defending itself against attacks from a  elite that continuously extracts further incremental sacrifices and denies the earned status of its entitlements (pensions, affordable health care, non-eviction, wages that rise with productivity).  More accurately, it has exhausted itself in defense while also denying that it has had to defend itself against predators that are continuously casting themselves as not only benefactors but as givers of economic life.  The result is chronic social-psychologial depression that in its turn gets perverse satisfaction in ripping away any shred of protection (public pensions, health care benefits, etc.) from other poor or middle class people who are within reach.  The flip side of bitterness over the ability of those with wealth and power to insulate themselves is to participate in the degradation of other unworthy groups.
5. Mutual aid solutions to destructive and inefficient markets for core goods will not return in the United States. Innovation is a form of mutual aid, but the version controlled by the US business system will not recover soon.  Having missed creating the “green collar economy” that would have addressed environmental and employment problems at the same time (and wrecked the Right-Radical / Conservative duopoly in US politics), mainstream innovation theory now consists of pep talks about the American Spirit, tributes to Anglo-Saxon law, and the blanketing of every field of invention with patent filings and unending lawsuits.  The innovation economy systematically seeks and achieves monopoly or duopoly in every domain (Google-Yahoo, Apple-PC), suggesting low survival rates for invention that does not support plutonomy.
6. Democracy depends on mass creativity in both economy and society, but the creativity of the great majority does not fit with the current economic model. The business relation to labor is mainly that of exploitation and cost reduction (Philip Davis: “Q1 Productivity dropped 0.9% while Unit Labor Costs rose 1.3% - indicating our corporate masters have finally squeezed the last drop of free labor out of the population and will now have to actually hire people or purchase more efficient equipment . . . in order to produce more goods.” The theory of control before creativity will not be changed by this shift.
7. There remains a creative contradiction between the democratic imagination, which has of course often used the Internet and various decenetralization technologies as a validation and means of its furtherance.  The above situation is not static, but Unger's interest in a "beyond Obama" can only be addressed by direct confrontation with the sadomasochistic middle-class psychology that has been produced by decline. 

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