The Cynicism and the Slaughter

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

The Editors

IMPEACHMENT.  BOMBING.  ELECTION.  Impeachment.  Bombing.  Perhaps by now, the scandal-witchhunt-Cruise missile cycle has become so predictable that it’s hard to respond with appropriate outrage to the latest round.  We all knew, after all, that it was going to happen.  Yet outrage is absolutely necessary, even at a moment when atrocity follows atrocity and world-class crimes against humanity virtually crowd each other out of attention.

Outrage is the essential first step toward sober analysis and effective action.  The sleazoid President, the contemptible Congress, the compliant corporate media, the triumphant designers of high-tech death machines—all have had their moment in the Siamese twin spectacles of the bombing of Iraq and the impeachment circus.

All we have with which to oppose them is our anger—”we” meaning here the anti-war movement, the students and activists who sent the State Department hacks fleeing from Ohio State University last winter, those who have defied the murderous sanctions against Iraq’s civilians—and our energy to mobilize emergency protests.

Our time will come, perhaps sooner than anyone expects, when the smoke of the bombing and the impeachment clears and reveals that nothing has been “solved.”  In fact, U.S. imperialism with all its indescribable military power has locked itself into a downward spiral toward an endless Gulf War, perhaps even a ground invasion and protracted occupation of Iraq, an adventure for whose potential costs the political elite has done nothing to prepare the population.

While the current phase of the bombing campaign is over, already there is talk of more bombing to come. The number of civilian deaths is not a very interesting figure for either Clinton or Saddam—after all, each is determined to “win.”  But we know the number will increase: Far more children will die from the effects of the destruction and the sanctions than the current four to five thousand per month.  Meanwhile the outgoing House of Representatives has voted to impeach Clinton and the Republicans seem unsure of what to do with their victory.

In all likelihood this round of bombing means the end of the UNSCOM—or was it “UN-SCAM”?—weapons inspection program, and the associated diplomatic maneuvering.  In some ways, good riddance to both, since neither side ever intended to abide by any agreement: The United States would not in any circumstances allow the lifting of sanctions, while Saddam Hussein’s appalling regime would never surrender its plans for rearming.

Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction programs” were initiated in the 1980s—when the West was supporting Iraq in the war Saddam initiated against Iran. Given all the covert logistical and concealment assistance from Western intelligence services, it’s not surprising that these programs are extraordinarily difficult to eradicate.  The civilian population, on the other hand, is the ultimate soft target.

Unlikely as the scenario is, were the United States to be unlucky enough to kill Saddam the physical ruin of the country, and the vacuum of politics created by his police-state system, would pose the danger of the breakup of the Iraqi state.  In that case U.S. imperialism, whether by intention or against its will, would have little choice but to occupy this devastated Middle Eastern country, with consequences that even Washington’s own strategists can barely contemplate.

Also at some risk is the domestic political stability that the U.S. ruling class thought it had been guaranteed by the November election result.  It is an extraordinary spectacle indeed when the Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate—perhaps the single most powerful legislator in the country—openly declares the President’s military action to be a wag-the-dog adventure.

Whatever Trent Lott’s motives, he happened to speak a truth that we on the radical left are virtually indicted for treason—or worse, labelled “irresponsible”—for daring to utter.  Mainstream commentators called it “a day of truly explosive drama in this politically punch-drunk capital” when “the President came face to face with the stinging reality that his credibility was crumbling, especially but not exclusively among Republicans on Capitol Hill.” (R.W. Apple Jr., New York Times, December 17, 1998, A1)

Such are a few of the fruits of the criminal mischief that U.S. policy has perpetrated in the Gulf, not only today but for decades past, in its fifty-year crusade to secure control of oil. The explosion at home will come when the bills come due—when this conflict ceases to be a TV-and-techno-toy spectacle, but a grinding military-political campaign with a bitter price.

Politics of a Dead Center

In any case, there was an election.  Did anything really happen?  In some ways, of course, yes: The slight shift toward the Democrats in Congress sent Newt Gingrich back home, dragging the entrails of the Contract on America behind him. There at least is one cause for satisfaction: the voters’ rejection of the sex-witchhunting crusade on which the Republican right has staked its hopes for ascendancy.

Meanwhile, so it was said, especially in state elections, the biggest Republican winners were the so-called “fiscal conservatives and social moderates.”  This means mainly the kind who are most efficient in slashing all social programs, except prison construction and private-school tuition vouchers, but who manage to keep stuffed in the closet the religious right’s fanatical anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-evolution and Christian-America agenda.

In contrast, it appears, the more openly the “social conservative” face of the Republican agenda is pushed forward, the less electoral support it receives.  On the other hand, in its diverse forms, the agenda of “fiscal conservatism” is no longer Republican property at all, properly speaking—but rather the hegemonic religion of both capitalist parties.  Thus the power centers in the Democratic Party are those that most closely resemble the “Republican moderates.”

As for the voting public—in an election, one should note, with the lowest percentage turnout since 1942—it showed great wisdom in rejecting impeachment-for-sex, but certainly little impulse toward radicalization (left or right).  The much-commented-upon “move to the center” in U.S. bourgeois politics is thus a reality, at least in part. In broad terms the process parallels European elections in Britain, France, Germany and Italy, where parties of the “hard right” have been supplanted by ostensible social democrats who are in fact Clinton clones (Britain’s Tony Blair) or else a few inches to the left of Clinton-Blair.

The question is whether this development marks, as the Clintonians and most establishment commentary would maintain, the creation of a vital and dynamic middle ground in U.S. politics capable of addressing pressing practical issues, freed at last from the ideological burdens imposed by the “extremism of right and left.” (In this context, “extremism” means the religious right agenda on one side and traditional liberalism on the other, given the absence of an authentic left big enough to be a target.)

Naturally enough, both the Clinton administration and most of corporate capital generally welcomed the election result, and would like it to be interpreted along the above-suggested lines.  It appears to offer political stability by minimizing the chances of a long-lasting impeachment crisis—at least, it seemed so at the time!

The self-inflicted damage to the political system became evident when the deal that everyone was expecting—Clinton to admit his lying, the Congress to back off from impeachment in favor of bipartisan “censure”—disintegrated upon Clinton’s refusal to confess.  He couldn’t do so, because the bottomless-budget, accountable-to-nobody, peeping-Tom prosecutor will keep his Starr-chamber grand jury in session to indict Clinton after he leaves office! Thus has Ken Starr become the Fourth Branch of government, holding the others hostage.

The result seemed also to maximize the likelihood of a year 2000 presidential race between two barely distinguishable “responsible center” candidates (with predictably attendant massive popular apathy and lower voter turnout).  The post-election impeachment drive in the House of Representatives complicates, but doesn’t necessarily negate this scenario; it may generate a new backlash and against the social and religious right.

Pay Now, Die Later

We offer a different perspective on the rise of the “center”: We suggest that it portends less a responsible and pragmatic approach to pressing issues than the politics of a “dead center,” capable of addressing few problems and solving even fewer.  Leaving aside international catastrophes, the reasons can be best understood by looking at the exemplary case of the tangled crisis of “managed health care.”

The corporate takeover of health care was a great triumph of the bipartisan consensus.  The rise of Health Maintenance Organizations put decisions on treatment and care right where every right-thinking free-marketeer knows they belong: in the hands of corporate accountant managers who understand cost containment and efficiency so much better than doctors and patients, for the benefit of stockholders.

Unfortunately, it turns out that HMOs engage in an all-too-perfect form of free-market behavior—taking as much money as possible in premiums from healthy people and withholding care from at-risk or sick folks.  Hence, for example, after a binge of recruiting elderly citizens, HMOs are now kicking them out, dumping the burden back onto the Medicare system and negating the projected savings.

The outrageous banditry of the HMOs has given rise to doctor unionization, boycott threats, and the need for serious government regulation.  Thus the Bill-and Hilary Clinton Democrats—who did so much to wreck the possibilities for a sane, single payer universal health care insurance system—now promote the bandaid of a “patients’ bill of rights.”

The Republicans will brand this as yet another “big government boondoggle.”  The managed-care industry will purchase their own insurance, by pouring money into the Political Action Committees of all sides to guarantee that the differences are minimal.

The health care debate unfolds in a kind of glacial political gridlock, while the actual crisis deepens every day. In contrast, the rush toward privatizing social security is stimulated by an entirely artificial atmosphere of “crisis” over the prospect of social security going into deficit—more than two decades in the future!

The terms of the health care debate are pretty much typical of most issues.  Indeed, the biggest underlying fact of the campaign-financing scandal—from the incredible volumes of money expended ($38 million in the Senate election in New York) to the vacuous and vicious personal attack ads—is that the cost of bourgeois politics itself forces a narrowing of substantive debate, by ensuring that the only views to receive media amplification are those most intimately in tune with corporate interest.

All this is pretty familiar ground for most activists with experience in confronting the two-party system in this country—as are the facts about narrower and more trivial politics producing less citizen involvement, lower turnout, lower expectations, etc. What, then, is to be done?  Rather than one single answer, we see elements of a new politics struggling to emerge on several fronts.

Elsewhere in this issue we report on the First Convention of the Labor Party, held in Pittsburgh November 13-15—a highly positive event that moved the LP a few steps forward along the road toward becoming a party in the real sense of the word. On the electoral front, however, the LP has not yet run any candidates and at best will field only a few in the three-and-a-half years until its next convention.

The LP remains organizationally weak, with substantial support in only a few unions.  Nonetheless, the work that unionists and socialists do today in building the Labor Party and its campaigns (e.g. “Just Health Care”) constitutes a vital investment in the future of class-based politics in this country.  It remains the case that the revival of dynamic social movements, leading the way toward a political break, is far more likely than the other way around.

Modest Green Gains

In our previous issue we noted the California Green Party campaign of Dan Hamburg and Sara Amir for Governor and Lieutenant Governor.  On the statewide level many voters, deprived of a preferential-voting system which would have allowed them to vote their real choice, voted for the Democrat Davis to defeat the Republican Lundgren.

Hence Hamburg received a rather disappointing 1.3%—92,613 votes, slightly less than the number of Green Party registrants—while Amir received 219,000 votes, for 3.1%.

In Humboldt and Mendocino counties, Hamburg’s area of the state, he drew 8.9% while Amir got 11.8% and 10% respectively.  The best county result was a solid 12.4% vote for Sara Amir in San Francisco.

In New Mexico, Green Party candidates in the First and Third Congressional Districts, Bob Anderson and Carol Miller, drew 10% and 5-6% of the vote respectively.

Although Miller’s vote was only half of what she received in a previous election, she told Against the Current that “there were $5-6 million spent in a dirty tricks smear campaign against me. This was an interesting experience in the second poorest district in the country, where the highest previous spending was $1 million for all candidates combined.” (Miller’s campaign budget was $25,000.)

In some two-way Green-Republican contests Green candidates took between 12-30%.  Meanwhile Miller has organized a campaign called Where There’s Smoke, to fight for universal health care in states receiving money from the federal tobacco settlement.  (E-mail  Such modest results must not be seen as representing the ultimate potential for independent politics, but rather viewed in the larger context of latent disaffection from the existing parties, as manifested in the victory of Jesse Ventura as Governor of Minnesota.

It is true that Ventura had the advantages of name recognition from his professional wrestling career and the ballot status of billionaire Ross Perot’s Reform Party.  Further, Jesse the Body’s substantive program, such as it was, was pretty firmly in the “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” center—the exact opposite of progressive independent or third-party candidates who have generally excellent programs with barely any name recognition or resources.

Still, the result shows the willingness of the electorate to disregard the pleadings of the two establishment parties, or even to tell them to shove it. The crucial strategic task is for the social movements with the power and resources to affect fundamental change—meaning, in the United States, the working class and the African-American movement—to harness this politically unorganized alienation.

That is how a powerful movement for a new party can emerge—although any such political orientation is far from the view of the mainstream labor or Black leaderships today.

To those who would lecture us that independent politics and a class-based party are noble but hopeless utopian objectives, we respond by pointing out the all-too-“practical” consequences.

The inward spiralling of bourgeois politics toward a kind of “center” leaves the so-called mainstream on many questions (welfare, affirmative action, labor law, the death penalty and brutally punitive criminal justice in general) somewhere to the right of the Nixon-era Republican Party.

Meanwhile, even though the politics of homophobic and anti-choice fanatics generally meet electoral defeat, intimidation and murderous violence—the killings of Matthew Shepard and Dr. Bernard Slepian—are, if anything, escalating.  The state’s own terror machine grinds forward toward the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal—who, unless broad mobilizations can force the federal courts to grant a new trial—would be the first U.S. prisoner in forty-five years (not counting several dozen extrajudicial murders by police) to be put to death because of his politics.

The U.S. stock market in November resumed its rise toward record heights, but there remains the fear of a global downturn—a prospect for which the supposed regulating institutions of world finance have no plan. Whenever the next recession hits the U.S. economy, it will find a shredded “social safety net” ripped apart by the bipartisan consensus of the Clinton era.

The ascendancy of the “center” hardly looks to us like a sign of stability or of solutions to anything.  While the Republicans proceeded with their impeachment-for-sex show, the Clinton administration remained locked into its death embrace with Saddam Hussein.

The struggle for a new politics is always daunting, but it has never been more urgent if labor, Black America and the movements hope to move the political agenda off dead center.  Until that time comes, whether in Iraq or here at home, we are all collateral damage.

ATC 78, January-February 1999