Friday, October 11, 2013

The Mythology of American Politics

It's conventional wisdom that politics has two faces: left-wing and right-wing. The issues of the day are routinely framed by experts and ordinary citizens alike as a conflict between left-wing liberals, progressives or Democrats on the one hand, and right-wing conservatives, libertarians, or Republicans on the other.

This presumption has become even more marked as ideological lines have hardened and one-time moderates and pragmatists have disappeared from the political landscape.

The fact is, however, that this left/right opposition represents a deep seated mythology which masks the true nature of American politics. Even worse, it serves the interests of the powers that be to the detriment of the public good.

Like any mythology, the idea that politics is essentially a conflict between left-wingers and right-wingers is significant because it is an article of faith, an unquestioned assumption which determines our thoughts and actions.

Unquestioned assumptions are beliefs which, by definition, resist refutation by ordinary argument. By framing how we think they determine what counts as valid evidence for or against them, rather than allowing evidence arising from general experience to determine valid thinking.

In the case of left-wing vs. right-wing thinking, we have a series of dovetailing half-truths which distort and obscure reality.

Conservatives rail against big government, yet are notoriously blind to the evils of big business. Liberals rail against big business, yet are notoriously blind to the evils of big government.

Rank and file conservatives, who often run small businesses, tend to have an understanding of what it takes to meet a payroll, fill inventories, satisfy customers, deal with competition, etc.. They naturally admire the success of larger corporations, and tend to identify with them.

For many such conservatives the government, with its regulations and taxes, is the natural enemy. They want "to get government off our backs." But they tend to give business a pass, largely ignoring abusive corporate power.

Rank and file liberals, by contrast, tend to be removed from the business world. If the favorite haunts of the conservative are groups like the Farm Bureau or the Chamber of Commerce, those of the liberal are often institutions, usually non-profits. These institutions – schools, universities, hospitals, foundations, etc. – are usually tied-in to government funding.

Most liberals therefore tend to take government for granted, and to see its regulation of business (health and safely, the environment, etc.) as a necessary check on bad practices. Since large corporations resist regulation and use their power to influence politicians and governments, liberals tend to see corporate power, not government, as the enemy.

The key point is that both big government and big business have benefited enormously from this pseudo-debate. Government has a poor record in curbing corporate power, but in areas like the military, homeland security, suspension of civil liberties, and surveillance it has gained almost totalitarian powers.

Similarly, though big corporations have been unable to shrink government, they are able, through campaign funding, to bind politicians into voting for extensive deregulation, while also supporting enormous corporate subsidies. Thus corporations have become largely unaccountable to the public, protected as too big to fail, and able to operate with virtual impunity.

Behind the apparent gridlock in Washington, both big business and big government are getting what they want – at public expense. The result is unprecedented growth of unaccountable political and economic power. Washington and Wall Street run the show, with little effective opposition. This is the real scandal of American politics, and the reason why no reform is possible.

This two-headed hydra of government and corporate power is the real radicalism of our time. It threatens our liberties, property, and communities. It serves powerful private interests at the expense of the public interest. Citizens have no meaningful input into corporate and government decisions. Our political parties – the maidservants mediated between big business and big government -- are part of the problem, not the solution.

Citizens and communities across the country are the real victims of corporate and government power – whether it's the taking of property through eminent domain for private uses, the preemption of local laws for corporate purposes, the use of subsidies to favor big corporations over local business enterprises, the externalization of environmental and other harms and costs of business onto the public, the bailout of the financial industry, or "free" trade agreements which have devastated the middle class. The list is virtually endless.

The defense of the public interest now relies on whatever resistance can be generated by local citizens and local governments to this unprecedented attack. Indeed, the only effective resistance to the tag-team onslaught of big business and big government has come from citizens working in their local communities. Whatever the destructive proposal may be – a polluting industry, a tax hike, outsourcing of jobs, a restriction of liberties – only spontaneously organized citizen resistance at the grassroots level has had any success in frustrating many of these initiatives.

It's important to be clear about this. Local spontaneous resistance is not organized from above. The environmental movement in the United States, for example, was not led to most of its success by the big environmental organizations such as the national Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Resources Defense Council, or the Nature Conservancy. These groups have piggy-backed on public sentiment and largely sought to mediate between big business and big government, hoping at best to mitigate not roll back significant environmental harms. Most ended up taking corporate money and serving corporate ends.

Local spontaneous resistance by contrast is not institutionalized; it does not depend on non-profit status, large paid careerist staffs, or a passive donor base. It is populist in nature, local rather than national, messy and chaotic, angry rather than cool, adamant rather than compromising, and potentially revolutionary in nature. Its signature is the NIMBY attitude, the defense of one's own turf above all.

The real heroes of grassroots resistance are individuals and local decentralized groups – Julia Butterfly sitting in a redwood tree, the Clamshell alliance and other local anti-nuke groups, the Occupy movement, and the anti-fracking movement in New York State, which has banned fracking for natural gas in scores of local communities, among others.

This local populist resistance to the powers that be has gone largely unremarked by both the mainstream and alternate media. It echoes an earlier American localist tradition associated with Jeffersonian democracy, a tradition, it is worth recalling, which consistently resisted both big business and big government. We saw it in the Farmers Alliance and other populist movements of the nineteenth century, the early labor movement, the civil rights movement, the counterculture of the 1960s, and the Tea Party of the early twenty-first century.

The prospects are not hopeless. As big business and big government become more powerful than ever, they become less efficient, less able to deliver the goods and services upon which society relies. Not only does centralization and lack of accountability frustrate corrective feedback, ensuring a kind of stupidity of centralized power, but deeper ecological and financial problems work against centralization. Resource scarcity, overpopulation, ecological destruction, and an unpayable debt burdens all raise costs and threaten far-flung financial, production and distribution systems.

The current crisis is one of a slow but steady breakdown of centralized power. Communities increasingly will be thrown back on their own resources. Whether they can wrest enough control from increasingly desperate corporate and governmental authorities to manage their own affairs will be the key challenge of the future. If that devolution of power can be achieved peacefully, with new localized, more democratic institutions able to rebuild more viable, sustainable, downsized local communities, we will have done as well as we can to prepare for the coming crisis.

But if local efforts to manage a transition as orderly as possible to sustainable living and local control are frustrated by the stubborn resistance of centralized power, and/or by local reactions that are uninformed, incoherent, anarchic, and violent, then our prospects are worse than ever. This is our dilemma, and our challenge.

The article was published 10 October 2013 at Information Clearing House:

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