jimsleeper.com » What Few Elected Officials Were Saying About Capitalism pre-Bernie

What Few Elected Officials Were Saying About Capitalism pre-Bernie


We didn’t see things like this before 2012. Photograph by John Locher / AP

By Jim Sleeper – February 28, 2010, TPMCafe

” [I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide… whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitution on accident and force… “

Alexander Hamilton hoped that “reflection and choice” would grow in what we now call the public sphere, a place that could be noisy but luminous, with constellations of respected seers focusing us on key decisions. Instead we’re in outer space, every speaker a shooting star amid whirling swarms of asteroids. Our political universe seems increasingly incoherent and amnesiac, lurching ever more frighteningly toward “accident and force.”

But something very orderly explains it, too: the taboo against serious criticism of business and finance capital. It keeps Tea Partiers from seeing that corporate ‘speech’ and corporate welfare are dissolving the public sphere and their freedom. Michael Moore’s movie Capitalism tried to show it. But the taboo held. Why?

Before I try to answer, let me sketch efforts that I and others made that failed to break the taboo.

1. Corporate “speech”. In several columns, I warned of the Supreme Court’s likely ruling that corporations, as legal “persons,” have rights to free speech that even Hamilton, a friend of business and banking, didn’t intend. I listened to the extraordinary Sept. 9 hearing at which conservative Justices bared willful yet blundering ignorance of original intent and of the fact that, as I put it in the Boston Globe,

“Corporations are creations of the republic, not its equals or superiors. We citizens charter them, protect them legally, subsidize them, and even bail them out – and punish them when, as with Pfizer Chemical, their profit-maximizing violates drug-safety rules.

“We couldn’t do that if a level playing field of ‘robust speech” were overwhelmed by corporate speech, which isn’t free because corporations, unlike individuals, are …. incapable of what the political philosopher Michael Sandel calls ‘a willingness to sacrifice individual interests for the sake of the common good, and the ability to deliberate well about common purposes and ends.’ That’s why corporations can’t vote – and shouldn’t be able to use the wealth we let them amass to inundate our deliberations.”

Few commentators joined in this warning at that time. Not until four months later, when the Citizens United ruling came, did some alarms sound. Amnesia uber alles!

2. Tea Party protests. Similar unconcern is now greeting a question that I and others are trying to pose to and about Tea Partiers: Why don’t they emulate the original Tea Partiers’ direct action against big business, as well as big government?

In 1773, the East India Company, a global capitalist corporation if ever there was, had become too big to fail. So it was rescued and coddled by the British government, not only with a nominal tea tax that prompted colonists’ cry, “No taxation without representation!” but also with subsidies and licenses that enabled the corporation to corner the tea market.

That’s what drove the original tea partiers the dump not just the government but the corporation’s actual commodity. By that standard, I asked here, and then in openDemocracy.net, and the History News Network, shouldn’t the Tea Partiers break into Pfizer headquarters and liberate medicines sold under the Bush prescription drug benefit plan’s bar against buying cheaper generic drugs for Canada?

“I know that that’s awfully radical,” I added. “But Samuel Adams was too radical for his cousin John Adams, until the Tea Party made John exult, ‘This is the most magnificent movement of all. This destruction of the tea is so bold, so daring, … and it must have so important consequences, and so lasting, that I cannot but consider it as an epoch in history.’ Will today’s Tea Partiers give us a new epoch of independence? ….[W]ill they take direct action against these incompetent and dishonest corporations’ control of government? Or will they just wear revolutionary-era costumes?”

I even posted the column on the Tea Party Patriots’ website, as a comment. It disappeared. Silence everywhere! Thundering, crashing silence. Articles about the Tea Partiers in the New York Times make only glancing references to corporate and finance capital. There is little honesty about the original Tea Party story and its relevance, if any, to democracy today.

So strong is the taboo that the only thing resembling true direct action is the nihilism of flying a plane into a government building, not a corporate one. Why isn’t action directed against the real causes of the chaos that is engulfing this society?

In citing my own posts, I have no interest in saying, “I told you so.” It’s been nice to see them linked – as when, on Twitter, Katrina van den Heuvel called this one a “must-read,” or when Andrew Sullivan linked and responded to this one and asked whether we are really prepared to fight. But I’m worried about the whirling amnesia and passivity that seem to be engulfing us all.

“New media” can’t save us from that. Only breaking the taboo against challenging corporate and finance capital can do it, and most ‘new media’ moguls aren’t heading that way. Corporate and finance capital, far more than government, are the sources of Americans’ political dependency. They and their conservative apologists, not liberals or the left, are the sources of public moral and social degradation and decadence.

It is this “dependency agenda” of finance capitalism and consumer marketing — not the one the “dependency agenda” George Will falsely attributed to liberals in a recent speech to CPAC — that is leaving us too ill to bear our sicknesses or their cures.

In his speech, Will salted his own monumental hypocrisy on this matter with well-scripted jokes and brought a crowd of conservative lemmings to its feet. He’d put his finger on most Americans’ greatest political fear: They fear proactive, social-democratic solutions more than they fear Republicans’ easy, negative, market-driven non-solutions.

These market-worshiping non-solutions truly are the default position in American politics. Social-democratic solutions are not, and probably won’t be until people are somehow mobilized, nudged, or forced by crisis into living with social-democratic programs long enough to realize that many of them are far more conducive to freedom and safety than the Republicans’ or the Tea Partiers’ answers. (Even Social Security, which Americans refused to let George W. Bush privatize, wasn’t as popular when it was first created as you might think. People had to live with it for a generation or more before they realized that it strengthens, not weakens, them.)

This particular American dilemma runs deep in our political culture. It grips even some one-time leftists who are now center-left academics and journalists, having rejected Marxist excesses of their misspent youth. But while Marx’s prescriptions were disastrous and, in the end, despicable, his diagnoses were quite right and seem more accurate with each passing day.

Even more paralyzing than regret about ideological excess, it seems to me, is a complex web of dependency that tethers many of today’s social scientists and professional scribblers and other pundits to the corporate- and finance-capitalist dispensation that our bought-and-paid-for legislators have entrenched around our lives. Even liberals love their unearned income and their real estate, if they have it, and more than a few of them enjoy circulating commodities more than ideas.

I should emphasize that I’ve never believed, as many socialists do, that curbing capitalism’s excesses, let alone removing capitalism tout court, would empower new men and women and liberate them from Evil. I think that the human heart is divided all the way down and that no political economy alone can dispel that fact. The tragedy of the political lies always before us.

Conservatives less hypocritical and pompous than George Will are quite right about this. But their answers to the problem are weak. They prefer dining out on the follies of leftists and liberals who are naive enough to blame all Evil on capitalism, as if it didn’t antedate capitalism. But conservatives who dine out this way too often forget how to cook for themselves, let alone for the rest of us.

How to address what’s serious in their challenge is a question I’ve taken up elsewhere and won’t here. Suffice it to say that conservatives’ objections to “social engineering” don’t alter a countervailing truth: If we truly mean to give Hamilton’s “reflection and choice” a decent chance of ascendancy over “accident and force” and fraud, we’d better curb the excesses unleashed by Republicans and conservatives since 1980 and embraced by corporate Democrats, and we’d better find new ways to affirm the dignity and sovereignty of the polity over the economy.

Short of figuring out how on earth to do that, I’d like to open a more modest inquiry into why so many of us remain complicit in respecting the taboo against challenging what capitalism has become since the time when even Adam Smith was horrified by the specter of big corporations. At least let’s name the ghosts that keep so many Americans afraid to say even as much as Smith did, let alone what Teddy Roosevelt did.