Redistribute the Wealth? Yes (But Not What Obama Proposes)
According to the “liberal” New York Times last Friday, John McCain’s fading chances of overtaking Barack Obama in the presidential election were increased to some degree by an “inopportune remark by Mr. Obama.” Obama’s bad statement was the “remark to [Joe] the plumber in Ohio who asked about [Obama’s] proposal to increase income tax rates on households making over $250,000 a year, in which Mr. Obama asserted that there was a need to ‘spread the wealth.’”
McCain, the Times reported, “seized on the response to reprise the he-will-raise-your-taxes attack that has historically had resonance in states like Florida, Iowa, and New Hampshire” (A. Nagourney, “How McCain Hopes to Defy the Polls and Win,” NYT, 10-24-2008, A1, A19)
For the record, here’s exactly what Obama said to “Joe the Plumber” earlier this month:
“It's not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they've got a chance for success too. My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody ... I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."
OBAMA AS “A SOCIALIST”
The Times understated the Republicans’ reactionary use of Obama’s comment. More than merely claiming that Obama is going to “raise taxes,” the Republican propaganda machine has been using the militantly centrist and “deeply conservative” Obama’s remark to bolster their preposterous neo-McCarthyite claim that he is a leftist proponent of wealth redistribution. Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity and other hard-right attack dogs have been suggesting that Obama’s comment reflects the likelihood that the junior senator from Illinois is “a socialist” .
McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb tried to make a two-fer out of Obama’s “inopportune remark.” Goldfarb used it to connect the absurd claim that the Democratic contender is a “leftist” to the equally ridiculous charge that Obama is an “appeaser” of official global enemies. "If Barack Obama's goal as President is to 'spread the wealth around,'” Goldfarb told FOX News, “perhaps his unconditional meetings with Hugo Chavez, Raul Castro, and Kim Jong-Il aren't so crazy – if nothing else they can advise an Obama administration on economic policy.”
RISING TIDE AND EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY vs. RADICAL REDISTRIBUTION AND EQUALITY OF CONDITION
I have four comments from the real Left on Obama’s remark, its treatment in U.S. political culture, and the problem of inequality. First, contrary to the right-wing’s hysterics, calling for “spread[ing] the wealth around” is not the same as advocating the egalitarian redistribution of wealth. In the dominant Western state-capitalist ideology to which both McCain and Obama subscribe (no candidate who rejects that ideology can make a serious run at the U.S. presidency), "mainstream” (corporate-approved) policymakers have long contended that the solution to poverty and material insecurity is “economic growth” – expanding the pie instead of slicing it up in a more equitable fashion. “A rising tide,” the argument runs, “lifts all boats,” so that nobody has to worry about who has the biggest and most luxurious vessels. The claim is that political-economic managers can generate enough employment and income that peoples’ material needs can be met without social conflict over the “obsolete” problems of distribution.
When American capitalist elites and politicians talk about increasing equality, moreover, they only mean equality of opportunity, not equality of condition. For the authentic historical left, by contrast, meaningful “equality” involves outcomes, not just “opportunity.” It’s not just about granting everyone an identical chance to become fabulously rich or miserably poor in accord with their particular combination of talent, hard work, and luck.
Radicals believe that the massive socioeconomic disparities that scar American and global life today would be no less offensive and damaging if everyone at the top had risen to their positions from a mythical "level playing field." As Noam Chomsky noted in response to a questioner who characterized American inequality by using the metaphor of “two runners in a race: One begins at the starting line and other begins five feet from the finish line:”
“That’s a good analogy, but I don’t think it gets to the main point. It’s true that there’s nothing remotely like equality of opportunity in this country, but even if there were the system would still be intolerable. Suppose that you have two runners who start at exactly the same point, have the same sneakers, and so on. One finishes first and gets everything he wants: the other finishes second and starves to death” .
The true Left has never sought merely a more superficially equal – fair start but unequal finish – rat race.
“OUR GREATEST ASSET”: CAPITALISM
Second, the heavily corporate-sponsored Obama has given repeated evidence that his concept of “sharing the wealth does not go beyond the limited bourgeois notions of expanding the pie and equality of opportunity. Listen (for one example among many) to the following revealing passage from Obama’s relentlessly power-worshipful 2006 campaign book “The Audacity of Hope:”
“Calvin Coolidge once said that ‘the chief business of the American people is business,’ and indeed, it would be hard to find a country on earth that’s been more consistently hospitable to the logic of the marketplace. Our Constitution places the ownership of private property at the very heart of our system of liberty. Our religious traditions celebrate the value of hard work and express the conviction that a virtuous life will result in material rewards. Rather than vilify the rich, we hold them up as role models...as Ted Turner famously said, in America money is how we keep score.”
“The result of this business culture has been a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history. It takes a trip overseas to fully appreciate just how good Americans have it; even our poor take for granted goods and services – electricity, clean water, indoor plumbing, telephones, televisions, and household appliances – that are still unattainable for most of the world. America may have been blessed with some of the planet’s best real estate, but clearly it’s not just our natural resources that account for our economic success. Our greatest asset has been our system of social organization, a system that for generations has encouraged constant innovation, individual initiative and efficient allocation of resources…our free market system” .
Referring to himself as a “free market guy” and reminding elites and others that he “loves the market” , Obama does and advocates nothing that remotely questions the sincerity of this terrible paean to the profits system. His embrace of the federal bailout of elite U.S. financial firms (including many of his top contributors) is a recent example of his strict adherence to the heavily indoctrinated state-capitalist mindset of Harvard Law and his leading sponsor Goldman Sachs.
“I MEANT ‘SPREADING AROUND OPPORTUNITY’”
Obama has also consistently advanced a militantly bourgeois take on social inequality and mobility. After claiming that the U.S. is a "beacon of freedom and opportunity" for those who exhibit "hard work and perseverance,” his instantly famous 2004 Democratic Party keynote address praised Americans for believing that “with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all.” This theme was repeated in “The Audacity of Hope.”.
Picking up on this standard conservative perspective on the meaning of equality as equality of opportunity (not of condition), Obama had this to say in his own defense after the Republicans started making hay with Obama’s “inopportune remark” to “Joe the Plumber:”
“The simple point I was trying to make was that even assuming he’s at a point that he wants to buy a business that he hopes will generate more than $250,000, the point I was making was that ten years or five years ago or even a year ago when he was making a lot less than that, he was having a tough time...We don’t mind people getting enormously wealthy because of their skills and talents and their drive. But we always want to make sure that playing field is such where everybody’s who’s got a good idea has a chance to succeed. Everybody’s got a chance to get financing. Everybody who works hard is able to raise a family. Everybody has an opportunity if they act responsibly to send their kids to college and retire with dignity and respect. And in that sense, that does involve us spreading around opportunity” .
Of course, anyone who seriously examines America’s candidate selection and election processes knows that the chances of a “radical redistributionist” making it to the cusp of the presidency are slim to none. Nobody promising to break up concentrated wealth and distribute resources equitably across the population is going to receive the corporate sponsorship and media approval required to make a viable bid for the presidency under American “market democracy” . Obama and his handlers are fully aware of this, we can be quite sure. They are in it to win it.
INEQUALITY vs. DEMOCRACY
Third, it’s a damn shame Obama can’t call for equality even if he wants to. There’s a strong Western and American philosophical and political tradition – hardly just socialist – that can be cited in support of the redistribution of wealth. In Aristotle’s Politics, the foundation for much subsequent Western political theory (including that of the U.S. Founders), it was understood that a meaningful democracy would have to be fully participatory and directed toward the common good. That could not be attained, Aristotle argued, in the absence of relative social equality, including “moderate and sufficient property” for all (of course Athens denied participation and benefits to women and slaves).
Aristotle thought you couldn’t talk seriously about democracy in a society characterized by extremes of rich and poor. Great wealth inequality and democracy could not co-exist because within a society because people with inordinate wealth possess superior resources to influence politics and policy in their own selfish interests.
If Aristotle was right, there are good reasons to “mind people getting enormously wealthy” – through whatever means (and most private wealth in primarily attributable to external social circumstances, not the individual agency of wealthy individuals) – in a society containing other citizens who are poor or merely less wealthy.
The notion that there is a core conflict between economic inequality and political democracy was shared by subsequent giants of Western thought and politics, including Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Wilhelm von Humbold, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson, and John Dewey – none of whom were
Aristotle, Jefferson, and classic Western liberalism’s concerns about the crippling impact of concentrated wealth and economic disparity on popular governance are richly born out by current-day U.S. politics and policy. The top 1 percent controls 40 percent of U.S. wealth and 57 percent of claims on wealth (interest, dividends and the like), leaving the remaining 99 percent to fight it out for less than two–thirds of the nation’s net worth. The top 10 percent owns more than two-thirds of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger share of the nation’s politicians and policy makers.
Contrary to popular myth, America’s stark class structure is relatively immobile. The “American Dream” of rising from poverty to wealth is actually less attainable in the U.S. than in most other advanced capitalist states.
The “greatest democracy money can buy” (Greg Palast’s description of the U.S. political system) grants giant tax breaks to the already super-wealthy. It pays for a massive war and empire budget ($622 billion this year) that supports more than 730 military bases spread across nearly every nation on Earth and accounts for half the world’s military spending (all in the Orwellian name of “defense”). This is because the privileged American Few aren't content to own a disproportionate share of U.S. wealth. They and their imperial planners seek to control as much of the world's treasure and resources (petroleum reserves in particular) as possible. At the same time, war, militarism, arms sales, and conquest are lucrative investments in and of themselves. The Pentagon budget is a giant public subsidy – a powerful mechanism of regular public wealth transfer to the high-tech corporate sector.
Americans are currently watching “their” government grant hundreds of billions of public dollars to the “unavoidable” bailout of parasitic Wall Street firms who engineered a financial meltdown that is helping trigger a deep recession that will throw millions out of work. By more than mere coincidence, many of us barely get by from one paycheck to the next. Evictions, foreclosures, bankruptcies and suicides are on the rise in the working, lower, and middle classes.
Tens of millions of U.S. citizens will stand in food lines each year. Many of those deeply disadvantaged Americans are part of the "working poor," a group that "plays by the rules" and still can't keep their heads above water in "the world's richest nation."
Meanwhile the current quadrennial corporate-crafted narrow-spectrum, personality-centered presidential election spectacle renders the nation’s more than 37 million officially poor nearly invisible. The candidates talk regularly about helping the middle class but do not speak seriously about rising mass poverty and the plight of the poor. Like the bloated “defense” (Empire) budget, the depth and degree of economic inequality is “off the table” of serious debate in dominant U.S. political and media culture.
The great “progressive” hope Obama’s top Wall Street backers are granted tens of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury, but there is no serious or remotely equivalent bailout being planned for the non-affluent majority.
Meanwhile, working class sons and daughters are economically drafted into deadly service into bloody colonial wars of Terror on Iraq and Afghanistan – illegal and imperial wars that both business candidates will clearly maintain.
Both of the dominant two business parties and their leading candidates stand well to the big business- and Empire-friendly right of the popular U.S. majority on critical policy
The nation’s “mainstream” (dominant and corporate) media is full of news and commentary fretting about the possible demise of – and the need to “rescue” – “capitalism.” It does not fret much about the need to save the poor and the working class. It says nothing about the need to move funds from the nation’s colossal and sacrosanct “defense” (Empire) budget to the meeting of social needs at home and abroad.
If we want to talk seriously about the existence of democracy in the U.S., we very much need to redistribute wealth in this country.
CAPITALISM vs. DEMOCRACY
Last but not least, as no leading “mainstream” corporate candidate or commentator can seriously acknowledge, there lurks behind all of this a fundamental conflict between (i) the social equality required for meaningful democracy and (ii) capitalism. Twelve years ago, the liberal economist Lester Thurow noted that "democracy and capitalism have very different beliefs about the proper distribution of power. One believes in a completely equal distribution of political power, 'one man [sic] one vote,' while the other believes that it is the duty of the economically fit to drive the unfit out of business and into extinction. 'Survival of the fittest' and inequalities in purchasing power are what capitalist efficiency is all about. Individual profit comes first and firms become efficient to be rich. To put it in its starkest form, capitalism is perfectly compatible with slavery. Democracy is not” (Thurow, The Future of Capitalism [New York, 1996]).
In a similar vein, onetime Chicago Tribune economics correspondent R.C. Longworth, also no radical, noted a decade ago that the "struggle of democracy and capitalism" is "at the heart" of "debate over the global economy. In theory," Longworth claims, "they are meant to go together, indeed to be inseparable. But democracy's priorities are equality before the law, the right of each citizen to govern the decisions that govern his or her life, the creation of a civilization based on fairness and equity. Capitalism's priorities are inequality of return, profit for the suppliers of capital, efficiency of production and distribution, the bottom line" (Longworth, Global Squeeze [Chicago, 1998]).
Here’s how Webster’s Unabridged Second Edition defines capitalism: “the economic system in which all or most of the means of production and distribution are privately owned and operated for profit, originally under fully competitive conditions: it has generally been characterized by a tendency toward a greater concentration of wealth and, in its later phase, by the growth of great corporations”...
...Great corporations, like The New York Times, the leftmost “mainstream” newspaper in a national political and media culture so reactionary that top “liberal” journalists find it “inopportune” for a candidate to be heard advocating a bit more economic opportunity for people below the opulent pinnacles of the nation’s steep class hierarchy. A political culture so reactionary that a stridently bourgeois corporate candidate risks being accused of the supposed crime of being a dangerous “radical” for daring to advocate a slightly more egalitarian version of capitalism.
Don’t just take it from an actual radical like me. Take it from Aristotle and Jefferson: we need a significant redistribution of wealth if we want like democracy in the United States.
And take it from Webster’s: that’s going to mean breaking with capitalism, the real disease (by the way) behind the financial symptoms and the related plutocratic policy responses that have developed over the last six weeks.
These are harsh realities that can never be acknowledged by the ruling U.S. media and propaganda system. Perhaps we can turn to these urgent issues in a serious way when the confetti of the current quadrennial electoral extravaganza clears and the cold facts of life under American state-capitalist Empire and Inequality comes into clearer focus.
Paul Street’s latest book is Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987). He can be reached at email@example.com. His first book was Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004).
1. For a careful portrait of Obama as “deeply conservative,” see Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). See also Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, (July 21, 2008; Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO; Paradigm, 2008). For reflections on the Republican campaign and public relations structure as neo-McCarthyist, see Paul Street, “Proto-Fascism in the United States: Campaign Reflections,” ZNet (October 17, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/19150; Paul Street, “The Madness of Jerome Corsi,” ZNet (August 25, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/18540.
2. Noam Chomsky, The Common Good (Berkeley: Odonian, 1998), pp. 9-10.
3. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown, 2006), pp. 149-150. The Audacity of Hope left it to left progressives – characterized by Obama and many of his elite supporters as insufficiently “realistic” and excessively “moral absolutist” carpers, “cranks,” and “zealots”– to observe some of the undesirable and less-than-“efficient” outcomes of America’s heavily state-protected “free market system” and “business culture.” Those results include the climate-warming contributions of a nation that constitutes 5 percent of the world’s population but contributes more than a quarter of the planet’s carbon emissions. Other notable effects include the generation of poverty for tens of millions of U.S. children while executives atop “defense” firms like Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Raytheon rake in billions of taxpayer dollars for helping the United States maintain the deadly and criminal occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. “The Audacity of Hope” left it to insufficiently “pragmatic” Left thinkers and activists to note the American System’s arguably wasteful and destructive allocation of more than a third of the nation’s wealth to the top 1 percent of the U.S. population and its systematic subordination of the common good to private profit. “Unreasonable” “radicals” were left to observe that business-ruled workplaces and labor markets steal “individual initiative” from millions of American workers subjected to the monotonous repetition of imbecilic and soul-crushing operations conducted for such increasingly unbearable stretches of time – at stagnating levels of material reward and security – that working people are increasingly unable to participate meaningfully in the great “democracy” Obama trumpets as the Founders’ great legacy. They were left also to “complain” about the fact that U.S. social mobility rates are actually quite low in comparison to other leading industrialized states, indicating a relatively fixed class structure in what Obama considers “the magical place” called America.
4. As Laurence Shoup recently noted in Z Magazine, Obama’s declaration of “love” for the market “failed to note that the market loves and rewards those who already have money and power, not those lacking these advantages. To say that you ‘love the market’ is akin to saying that you love the ruling class (the top 1 percent of the population that controls 20 percent of the country’s wealth and nearly 40 percent of the country’s wealth) and do not care about the great majority (the 60 percent of the population that controls only 25 percent of the income and 5 percent of the wealth). To say ‘I love the market’ – at a time when the financial system is deflating because of decades of lies about how great unregulated markets are which fueled rampant speculation, phony valuations, and deceitful assurances – is to be deaf to the reality of powerful interests are protected by the government while everyone gets a lecture on personal responsibility. ‘Change we could believe in,’ would involve confronting the perversity of market-driven capitalism….” See Laurence H. Shoup, “Obama and McCain March Rightward,” Z Magazine (September 2008), p. 27.
5. Barack Obama, Democratic Convention Keynote Address: “Time to Reclaim America’s Promise,”(Boston, MA, July 27, 2004), read at
http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/07/27/dems.obama; Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 7.
7. Edward S. Herman, “How Market Democracy Keeps the Public and Populism at Bay,” ZNet Sustainer Commentary (August 13, 2007), read at www.coldtype.net/Assets.07/Essays/0907.Ed.market.pdf
8. See Noam Chomsky, The Common Good, pp. 5-10; Noam Chomsky, Class Warfare (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1996), pp. 123-24; Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order (Boston, MA: South End, 1996), pp. 72, 87-89, 93, 117-118; Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Democracy and Education (New York: Routledge-Falmer, 2003). Even James Madison, who advocated a government that would "protect the minority of the opulent against the majority," came to loathe the wealthy Few’s takeover of early American policy and opinion. By the 1790s, he denounced the "daring depravity of the times" as "the rising class of business people become 'the tools and tyrants' of government, overwhelming it with their force and benefiting from its gifts.”
9. Six leading global financial firms (one recently closed) can be found among Obama’s top 15 contributors: Goldman Sachs (#2 at $743,000), Citigroup (#4 at $500,000), JP Morgan Chase (#6 at $478,000), UBSAG (#9 at $419,000), Lehman Bros (#10 at $392,000), and Morgan Stanley (#15 at $344,000). See www.opensecrets.org.
10. For more details and sources on the disconnect in American democracy, see Paul Street, “Americans’ Progressive Opinion vs. ‘The Shadow Cast on Society by Big Business,’” ZNet (May 15, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/zspace/commentaries/3491.