Some Janus-y observations at the turns of the year and decade.
I apologize for quoting a Facebook status update; it always annoys me when CNN quotes Twitter feeds as if they were news. But this is relevant, I swear.
Last week, a friend and colleague of mine whom I have a lot of respect for conceded some political disappointments over the last year in his status update, but concluded that things were basically going in “our” direction.
What ever was he talking about? Let’s take stock for a moment.
• We’ve just been through the worst financial and economic crisis in two or three generations. Things are stabilizing now, but hardly turning around. Over 15 million people are officially unemployed, and another 11 million are unofficially so. Yet little has changed in policy or thinking. Hundreds of billions of public funds, and trillions of Federal Reserve magic money, have been deployed essentially to restore the status quo ante. Wall Street’s economic and political dominance, which looked to be teetering just a year ago, now looks restored. The president may huff and puff a bit about “fat cat bankers,” but he wrote them big checks to aid the return to business as usual.
• Something similar is happening with health care reform. Despite a lot of inflated rhetoric coming from the Dems and their loyal pundits, insurance company power and wealth will be enhanced, not overturned—not even challenged. For a taste of the inflated rhetoric, here’s what House communications director Dan Pfeiffer wrote this on the official Oval Office blog, in reaction to the GOP’s efforts to repeal the health bill before it’s even been enacted: “[M]any opponents of reform…appear to think that insurance companies can do no wrong. [E]veryone should be very clear what is being called for here. At a time when insurance companies are finally about to be reined in, and when American families are finally about to be given control over their own health care, opponents of reform are advocating that insurance companies once again be allowed to run wild.”
Pfeiffer’s view isn’t shared by the inscos themselves. A few weeks ago, Politico’s Ben Smith reported that “an insurance industry insider who has been deeply involved in the health care fight email[ed] to declare victory”:
We WIN. Administered by private insurance companies. No government funding. No government insurance competitor.
That’s not “our” direction, is it? Nor is it “reined in.”
• And abroad, U.S. imperial power, instead of being pared back, only intensifies. The war in Afghanistan is being escalated, and now we’re opening a fresh front in Yemen. Civilians are already being killed, and more will be, in pursuit of what? An utterly chimerical victory over “terrorism,” whatever that is? The policy that most excites hatred of the U.S., our almost unconditional financial and military support of Israel’s savage occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, continues. But that’s not all. As we heard on this show last week, Obama’s approach to the Copenhagen climate conference was as arrogant and unilateral as anything the George W Bush did. This provoked the economist Jeffrey Sachs, once famous for torturing countries in Latin America and Easter Europe with shock therapy but who has apparently been born again into something like a critic of imperial power, to say that Obama could end up being more damaging to international environmental law than Bush.
What’s this all mean? It’s as if we’ve now developed a pattern of alternation. First, a reactionary and subliterate Republican president—Reagan, Bush the younger—launches a profound assault on the living standards of the population to enrich the very richest and an assault on civilized standards of discourse and behavior. Then the troglodyte is succeeded by an urbane Democrat—Clinton, Obama—who consolidates those transformations while disarming the liberal intelligentsia with high-flown rhetoric and by his refreshing capacity to speak in complete, grammatical sentences. I’ll abstain from quoting Marx’s cliché about first time tragedy, second time farce, because this second time is sad and tragic and we should know better.
But maybe 2010 will bring about the productive disillusionment I’ve been hoping for. The better portion of the liberal intelligentsia may finally shed its remaining illusions about Obama’s phantasmic inner progressive. And the millions of regular people who were energized by his candidacy and are now disappointed by his embrace of business as usual might be energized into something more radical. A good start would be fighting for single-payer and a serious international attempt to address the climate crisis. And increasing pressure to withdraw from our wars in the Middle East. That’s going to take independent action, not vague hopes for leadership from Washington or obeisance to reigning notions of the possible. There’s just enough chance that something like that might happen that it could put the happy back into happy new year.