Saturday, October 8, 2011

Green with Envy? The GOP misunderestimates progressive politics

Herman Cain has proved ready and willing to step up and assume the mantle of this month’s resident lunatic and saviour of the GOP.  Don’t they see what happened to their predecessors?  Michele Bachmann done in when she opened her mouth just a little too often...Rick Perry saying something sensible about immigration policy...Chris Christie realising that being a nasty, big-mouthed hack doesn’t always cut it...surely it’s only a matter of time before someone digs up a decades-old transcript which catches Cain saying something nice about poor people, or Muslims.

But until then, he’s raging around the television studios, basking in what is hopefully his fleeting fame.  His latest series of arguments repeats a line I’ve heard time and again from Republicans.  “Don’t blame Wall Street”, Cain inveighed in the Wall Street Journal with reference to the Occupy Wall Street campaign, “Don’t blame the big banks.  If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself”. 

It’s hard to know where to begin critiquing a statement as devoid of reason as this.  One could begin with the obvious point that most people are not self-employed and do not, therefore, control the terms of their employment (although they would have more control if Cain’s party, with the collusion of the Democrats, hadn’t been working steadily to erode the power of organised labour).  One could point to the long history of wealthy interests and powerful industries which structure employment around the health of their immediate bottom-line rather than what’s best for their employees or society in the long-run.  One could point to the recession, and its roots in the deregulation of the financial industry, the unshackling of a savage kind of greediness, the promotion of a deeply anti-communitarian amorality.  Or to the distribution of wealth in our society, which has seen the top few percent grow spectacularly wealthy not just coincidentally alongside the stagnation of incomes and life quality of the bottom mass of people, but as a calculated result of that stagnation, caused by short-sightedness, greed and malice. 

Cain went on to say, “If you are envious of somebody who happens to be rich, that you call a fat cat, go and get rich instead of expecting them to walk outside their office and write you a check.  That’s not the way America works.  Work for it!” 

This is another line the Right often trots out: that working- and middle-class people only approve of a fair tax system which asks the wealthy to pay their fair share because they are jealous and anti-American (the pool of “Real Americans” is shrinking pretty drastically these days).  And it’s so manifestly off-base, so incredibly wrong-headed, that I wonder how many of them genuinely believe it, as opposed to simply use it as a convenient line to throw in when their arguments break down.

If people actually believe this business about envy as the basis for social democracy, they will never begin to understand the bases of social democracy or progressive politics, which are fairness and equity, of both access to resources and of access to political participation. 

At its most basic, ours is a belief that inequality is wrong, that some people have more access to power than others, that this inequitable distribution of power has been used by a small group of people to cultivate their narrow interests rather than those of the wider community and to gain access to a disproportionate share of collectively-created wealth, and that the imbalance of access to the resources necessary for living a good life and participating in a democratic society have to be rectified. 

It is a respect for work, both on its own terms and on the terms by which it contributes to our collective well-being.  It is a belief that people who do some types of work should not be punished by a distribution of wages and priorities that forces them to the margins, makes their livelihoods tenuous, and then punishes them again for falling victim to a deliberately-constructed chain of events outside of their control.  It is not, ultimately, about money, but about the ability to live a decent life and to participate in civil society and have access to the institutions that define that society.

The Right loves to talk about social welfare and free markets.  But the largest, most complex and most carefully-tended system of welfare in our nation today is that which protects the interests of the wealthy.  The big agricultural industry is shielded from the demands that society should be able to put on it to orient itself towards a sustainable, clean approach to growing our food.  Energy industries are protected from having to take responsibility for the damage they cause to the environment and health of our people, and have been allowed in many instances to write their own rules.  The financial industry ensured that it was freed from all regulations and responsibilities, and its proponents currently fill many positions in Congress and in the Obama administration. 

We are told that the answer to our economic woes is to repeat each of the steps we took on the road to economic ruin in 2008.  We are assured that if we let the financial industry, the energy industry, and other powerful and wealthy interests get by without paying their fair share, that if we let them do what they want, we will see a significant economic uptick.  There is zero evidence to support this, and a hundred examples from history of the susceptibility of these interests to short-termism and greed.

Government is not perfect, but unlike these other interests, it is a collective endeavour, historically deliberately oriented towards the collective good.  It is, if accountable to its electors, able to transcend different sectors of the economy, rein in greed, and at its various levels of operation design an economic and social program that can benefit the great majority of people. 

Of course one of the reasons why our structures of governance seem not to work is because one political party in particular has, as its central principle, the dismantling of as many collectively-oriented institutions—in the spheres of environmental protection, health, education, welfare and recreation—as it can manage.  In the shadows of our reduced circumstances, this party sabotages the institutions—which together constitute government—designed to serve the people, and in the sunlight proclaims that government isn’t working.  One day this party works to construct economic, social and political inequality, and on the next berates those who, as they slide towards personal ruin and despair amidst a re-working of the economy on behalf of the wealthy, ask for some fairness.

If Herman Cain and the others who aspire to lead the Republican Party in 2012 really do not understand the basis for unhappiness with the way our economy, society and politics are working (or not working) today, they will very likely be in for a rude shock, because progressive politics are rooted in something other than class envy, and groups like Occupy Wall Street are not likely to go away.

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