How the Government and Capitalism are Alienating Our "Unalienable Rights" and the Need for Radical Change Yesterday
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. –U.S. Declaration of Independence
It’s a strange phenomenon—how so-called “patriots” of the “conservative” and “liberal” stripes can look at our government as sacred. Radical transformation of our government is not a popular sentiment in a country despite the fact that the general population feels its government is way off track and too deep in the pockets of Wall Street. All this “founding fathers” and "if you don't vote then shut up" horseshit you hear from the right and left is vomit-inducing. As if our political system isn't flawed or rigged and if you just vote then everything will be okay, or that our "founding fathers" weren't a handful of wealthy white men who wanted to rule, not the King of England.
In Martin Luther King Jr's famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" he says,
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice.
There is just something creepy about how we revere and idolize our government while despising it and knowing something is very wrong. This is not something that can be put off on the "tea party" and the "right." The liberal left is just as plagued with this problem, and the problem is the lack of systemic analysis and the dedication to the above comment penned by Thomas Jefferson.
Charles Beard, an early 20th century American historian, once said that,
You need only reflect that one of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the struggle for independence.
That's certainly true. Start talking about abolishing our government and you best look out for predator drones.
And as Beard certainly knew, from the get go it was obvious that the United States of America was an “empire” (George Washington) that would “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” via the Senate (James Madison). Their "phrases" that they "used in the struggle for independence" were often self-serving and ruling class oriented. Again, something Beard knew well considering it was the topic of his book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. This is also a big theme in Howard Zinn's masterpiece A People's History of the United States.
From the craddle we were “determined to exterminate” the native populations (Andrew Jackson) so our leaders could steal their land and then work it for their gain. Well, they didn’t work it. The slaves they kidnapped and brought from Africa did that for Ole Massa. And the Chinese who built our railroads. And the poor Irish, German, Mexican and so on. It's still that way. The poor do all of the work so the Lords of Capital can sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor. (Speaking of immigrant labor: about a week or two ago I saw a Simpson's episode on immigration where Homer goes to the hospital and complains of all the immigrants who are clogging the system and an immigrant shoots back something to the effect that, "I hurt my back unclogging your system!")
But the above quote from the Declaration of Independence still has something of value.
For us Americans it is “self-evident” that we have “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The problem is there is a good case to be made that the rights are, in fact, being alienated. This government and our capitalist economic system have always been an obstacle to us and our interests. It constantly deprives us of life and liberty and fulfilling our own lives. Like, maybe you're reminded of something Stephen Jay Gould, the late evolutionary biologist, said:
I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
The right likes to say the recent healthcare reform was “socialist.” This is just silly hyperbole. There is nothing socialist about the corporate welfare masked as healthcare reform. Putting aside authoritarian socialism—because there is nothing socialist about it—we should consider what socialism is: it is the social and collective ownership, management and planning of the economy and the egalitarian distribution of wealth. Being mandated to buy overpriced crap from private insurers is the opposite of socialism. Do workers and consumers own, manage and plan the healthcare industry with this reform? Of course not. State intervention is not socialism. The Pentagon system is not socialism. The bailouts of Wall Street was not socialism. We could only wish we had anything "socialist."
Some months back President Obama had the nerve to publicly make the following comment,
As I said when I met with the insurance executives, it’s not meant to punish insurance companies. […] once this reform is fully implemented a few years from now, America’s private insurance companies have the opportunity to prosper from the opportunity to compete for tens of millions of new customers.
In other words, he catered to the concerns of “insurance executives,” not “We the People.”
Most of ya’ll already know this but I will say it again. The “healthcare crisis” is that we spend way too much for something that leaves nearly 50 million without insurance, millions more uninsured, where over half of our bankruptcies are for medical bills, where over half of those had insurance, where hundreds of Americans die each day due to lack of care, and where we struggle to afford our prescriptions. This is not just a burden for people, but for businesses too. American auto companies can save money by paying Canadian workers more to assemble our cars because the healthcare costs are lower. When an American worker builds a car we spend more on their healthcare than the steel used in that car. Much of the rest of the developed world doesn’t have a private healthcare system. Many of them have a national healthcare plan, or a single-payer system. Taiwan modeled theirs on our Medicare but for everybody. We spend twice as much per capita as the rest of the developed world yet we have the problems listed above and we’re not as healthy. And healthcare costs are still rising.
That’s the “crisis.” It’s a real one and has been ongoing for years. And President Obama didn’t resolve it. He and the Democratic Party made it worse. Many of the opinion polls show that a good amount of the opposition to the healthcare reform was from the left, in that it didn’t go far enough or that it went the opposite direction of what many of us wanted: singlepayer.
The class war between the ruling class and the working class has also alienated our right to life. We work long hours and are considerably more productive than we were during the “Golden Age of Capitalism” yet income inequality continues to grow and most of us are seeing our homes foreclosed, our jobs lost, and our retirements dwindled. We live paycheck to paycheck. We rely on the aid of our friends and family to get by. We struggle. Meanwhile the richest American billionaires continue to get richer. This is not socialism. This is capitalism.
We gave $3 trillion to the banks with virtually no strings attached. They lobbied our government to loosen the financial regulation so they could work their magic and brought our economy down with it. Bush and Obama said they were “too big to fail” so we threw our money at them. They used it not to put Americans back to work or to get the economy going but to pay bonuses and bribe government for more influence. We also will have spent more than $3 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This while we have a $6 trillion shortfall in paying our retirement. You got that? We spend $6 trillion on Wall Street and War, and in return we don’t get to retire. Keep the troughs for the capitalist pigs full and keep dying as petrol-imperial cannon fodder, but don’t think you will get to retire. Lawd no.
And what about Social Security? Even those who get it can’t survive on it. Even if you don’t have the outrageous prescription costs (and remember, Obama and the Democrats didn’t push for the federal government being able to negotiate fair prices because they want the private companies to “prosper” which is just a euphemism for our exploitation). The problem with Social Security is how it is taxed. If you are the CEO of Goldman Sachs then less than a quarter of your annual earned income will be taxed for the program, but if you are a single-mom working double-shifts at IHOP then 100% of your income will be taxed. That’s because there is a “cap.” As it stands less than $110,000 of your earned income is taxed for the program. And if you are like Warren Buffett—who makes most of his money from investment—then none of your investment income will be taxed for it.
The fiscal problems of Social Security will not become a problem until the late 2030’s even with no changes but there needs to be changes. The benefits need to be increased, and that would mean we have to fix the way the program is taxed. The cap for individuals and big businesses need to be removed.
We are spied on constantly by our own government. We know that we are not being spied on as potential terrorist threats. That’s a smokescreen. Enough has been revealed to know that it is social justice activists that are being monitored, infiltrated and sabotaged. I remember when it came out that the Pentagon’s “Talon” program was spying on pacifist Quakers my wife made me a tee shirt that had the Quaker cereal guy with the title being “Al Quaker” and on the back it said “Put some jihad in your cereal!” It was a good piece of political satire.
And the institutions and laws of our economy and political system are obstacles to our being free. If you are rich you can easily purchase your liberties on the open market. But if you don’t have the money then you simply have to adapt. That’s the thing about our state capitalist system. Sink or swim. You’re free to do whatever you want so long as you can pay to play and that you play by the rules which are biased in favor of the ruling elite. If you want to be happy or live fulfilling lives then you have to mold yourself to the existing system: the markets. You have to sell your soul to Mammon to be able to live comfortably and provide for your family. I am not kidding. If you want to start a good company that takes care of the environment, that pays workers decent wages and doesn’t rob customers then guess what? You will go out of business because someone else will not give a shit and will take a steamy dump on the planet and not think twice about exploiting third world labor conditions to sell consumers cheap crap. In markets the prevailing rule is, "Do others in before they do you in." And if you want a compliant government you have to be able to finance their campaigns and hoodwink millions of other voters to think your candidate is their preferred candidate.
A few minutes ago I was driving by a campaign sign for some Democrat and it said, "defend change." I wanted to scream. There has been no change. We cannot defend something we have not gotten!
And somehow in the midst of all of this suffocation, these violations of our “unalienable Rights” we look upon our political and economic systems with nostalgia. This is probably the most frustrating thing about being an American. The contradiction of our traditional values—leaving aside slavery, genocide, warmongering and wife-beating—that Thomas Jefferson penned is embraced and those who want to alter or abolish our government so that we can actually pursue life, liberty and happiness are looked at as traitors and anti-American. Paul Street recently responded to the idea that the right wants to shrink our government down to nothing by pointing out that,
The right and the neoliberal project more generally seek to “starve” only what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state”: the parts that reflects past popular victories in the struggle for social justice and democracy. The “ right hand of the state” – the parts of government that serve, protect, and provide welfare for the opulent minority and dole out punishment for the poor – are not targeted for dismantlement.
If you tune into Rush Limbaugh (as I write this he is on the air live), Glenn Beck and others you hear it daily. Right now as I am typing one of the rightwing demagogues is pounding away at the left, at Obama, at the Democrats, at anything remotely associated with social justice and progress but the “right hand of the state” is not mentioned. Remember, the healthcare reform was “socialist” but not the Military Industrial Complex. It doesn’t matter that the liberal left is not socialist or for radical change (they are just cheerleaders for the Democratic Party with no systemic analysis) or that Obama and the Democrats hook for the Lords of Capital just like the Republican Party. Their goal is to “manufacture consent” (Walter Lippmann). They want to drive out any notion of rebellion. It’s a very Orwellian procedure; they want to turn rejection into acceptance, and disobedience into submission. They constantly say such-and-such is a threat to our way of life, our system, which may not be perfect but it’s the best there is. That theme—that line of bullshit—is being said right now. All you hear is “Our, our, our” as if we are one big happy family and it is the divisive, traitorous left that is disrupting the fabric of our society. Don’t take my word for it. Tune in and listen. You will hear it. The propaganda is crafty. It is channeling the frustration of being betrayed into approval and dogmatic admiration of the problem: our government and capitalist system.
We need to radically alter or abolish it and the sooner the better. We need to be cognizant of what the problems are, why they are problematic, what we could be doing differently and work at realizing it. Where government and business will seek to oppose us—and they assuredly will—we need to meet their resistance with disruption, massive non-violent civil disobedience and most importantly: direct action.
As things stand this is not the case. In France the rightwing government is considering raising the retirement age by two years and labor unions and students are carrying out a considerable amount of acts of civil disobedience and disruption. Here in the US the leftwing Democratic Party is considering raising the retirement age by five years and the most the liberal left will do is possibly sit out the elections. There is no popular movement here in the US. What there is, is either counter-productive loyalty to a political party or apathy. This goes for the right too. In a strange sense, the problem that is holding back the left is what we should be thankful for about the right. The so-called teabaggers are little more than cheerleaders for the Republican Party. They lack the systemic analysis of our political and economic system. The Tea Party is to the Republican Party what MoveOn is to the Democratic Party: an organizational front bent on partisan politics.
If we can look at a representative democracy that is plagued with systemic problems that leave it to be a tool for the "minority of the opulent" then we should look at further decentralizing our government into participatory democratic assemblies, and to put a stop to the income inequality that creates the class differences behind why the rich have different interests than the working poor. Ironically, this is part of the argument that some on the right has for “states rights.” They realize too much power is invested in the federal government. They are in favor of decentralizing it, at least to the local and state levels, though not necessarily for benevolent reasons. This doesn’t mean we just abolish private property like some socialists tend to think is sufficient. What makes class differences is not just property relations, but also divisions of labor, methods of remuneration and the roles workers and consumers play in planning the economy. If how we reward labor or divide work is done in ways that empowers, enskills and informs some but not all then we are creating class differences which will result in some leading and the rest following. We will be right back to where we are.
Once upon a time, in a world not indifferent from our own, a socialist named Eugene Debs told a crowd,
I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the Promised Land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.
"Okay, I'm sold," you say. "What do I do?"
Get educated. Get organized. Get active. If you're educated and you understand how our political and economic systems work, what's wrong with them and what we could do differently (and better!) then great, get organized and active. If you're educated and organized then even better, get active. If you're all three then keep trucking! That's all we can do: understand, find power in numbers and use that power to realize our goals. We—not some revolutionary vanguard acting in or pretending to be acting in our interests—must build a popular, autonomous, revolutionary, democratic, social movement from below that knows what it wants, how it means to get it and begins building tomorrow today. If we want a classless society that empowers workers and consumers to get themselves out of their "present condition" without playing Follow the Leader, and to own and manage their lives and to fairly distribute the wealth based not on bargaining power but on how hard and long we work then we need to build a participatory economy (which would consist of social ownership, participatory planning, balanced job complexes and remunerative justice). Such a system would go a long way to fulfilling our "unalienable rights." It helps that if we want to live up to Jefferson’s words that doing so is a necessity with time running out.
From the plains of North Texas with mucho Solidarity,