Thursday, April 5, 2012

California's Drift to Lawlessness


Skimming through news headlines, it struck me how frequently the word ‘lawless’ is applied to places that lack the attributes of order that we associate with stability.  Two places in East Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia, have become almost synonymous with the term.  The fragile government in Mogadishu is only now, with the military aid of the African Union, beginning to project its authority beyond the capital.  And it has been many years since the eastern region of the DRC—a massive country—has been more than notionally subject to the dictates from the capital, Kinshasa, out west.

I mention this lawlessness because it made me think about California.  As far away as a prosperous and law-abiding state might seem from the equatorial towns and forests and deserts and cities of eastern Africa, there is, I promise, a connection...

I’ve long believed, not without foundation, that the Republican Party in California is waging war on civil society on behalf of its corporate backers.  There are certainly many interests that would benefit from the climate of deregulation that the Republican Party would introduce: banks, oil, developers and the like.  So on the one hand it looks like they’re simply acting as a corporate goon squad, a kind of advance guard for the people whose anti-social irresponsibility plunged our country into chaos in 2007 and 2008, and who are now trying to re-take the castle.

But I’m not sure that it’s that simple.  The legislative representative of today’s Republican Party in California have become ideological purists—fanatics—to such an extent that they’re not always simply working in the service of corporate backers.  In fact the on-going efforts to get a revenue-raising measure on the November ballot are instructive.  California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, having apparently not read a newspaper in a couple of decades, assumed office in early 2010 operating under the premise that even if Republican legislators wouldn’t agree to a tax increase, he could get them to put a measure on the ballot to let Californians decide.

His efforts to generate more revenue for the state don’t stem from some ambition to re-found a progressive society or reinvigorate California’s public sphere.  He is almost solely concerned with plugging the budget deficit while studiously ignoring the underlying cause of our political paralysis.  This deficit, together with the year-in-year-out failure to set the state on a firm course, or to invest in its public institutions, have not only proved disquieting to Californian voters.  Even larger businesses, to which taxation is traditionally anathema, have begun to see that their interest lies in introducing an element of stability and lawfulness to California’s politics.  These people back the Republican Party because they want lower taxes, not necessarily because they want to dismantle California’s universities, weaken its schools, or roll back all of its social services.  In this respect, their interest in low taxation is different from that of the fundamentalists running the Republican Party.  And unlike the interests of the oath-signing, chest-beating legislators, their interest in low taxation is conditional.  That is, it has its limits.

And so when Republicans declined to support Brown’s efforts to put a measure on the ballot (he wasn’t asking them to vote to actually raise taxes, mind you, but just to give Californians the opportunity to vote as to whether they wanted to raise taxes), some traditional Republican allies began having second thoughts.  An elitist group of state leaders in politics and business (not of a remotely left-wing cast) produced a proposal to allow them to stage what would amount to a coup in California, in the aid of managing the economy according to their perception of its needs rather than a neoliberal economic programme.  They called for raising taxes.  It was widely expected that Brown’s original measure to appear on November’s ballot would have been backed by state business groups.  Now that he’s amended it to ally himself with CFT, their backing might come less readily.  But the principle remains.  The people for whom the Republican fanatics are supposedly acting are beginning to jump the fundamentalist ship.

And they’re jumping ship, I’m convinced, because they recognise that the state of affairs that the state Republican Party is trying to introduce is one defined primarily by lawlessness.  There would be no oversight...industries would simply do what they wished, and self-regulate if they felt like it and if it was in the interests of their bottom line.  The state would lose virtually all power to administer affirmatively, and be reduced to deregulating, decommissioning, de-funding, disestablishing, disinvesting, and so on. 

And as much as the financial, energy, real estate, and commercial industries pay lip service to the ideological cause of the right, theirs is a practical interest.  For all their supposed allegiance to the free market, there is certainly too much uncertainty in the Republicans’ project for these scions of irresponsibility and greed to contemplate.  Market uncertainty would be one problem.  The other danger is that people would at last begin to grow wise to what a ‘free market’ really means for the middle and working classes.  The moribund-looking Occupy Wall Street movement was a salutary shot across the bow of a misguided faith in capitalism, in markets, and in deregulation.

And, perhaps to be fair, however dodgy their dealings and anti-communitarian their outlook, business elites are people too, and I imagine that it’s troubling for anyone who isn’t a paid-up ideologue to contemplate a community with no moral framework to govern how we do business, how we live, how we treat one another in associational lives.  Troubling, in other words, to imagine the dismantling of a community.

On the one hand, you’ve got to give the Republicans points for creativity.  They have, after all, found a way to wield immense political power by losing elections.  Losing them quite spectacularly, in fact—garnering barely over a third of the legislature in an aggressively two-party system is quite an achievement in itself.  But on the other hand, you wouldn’t want to give too much credit, because no party with an affirmative, positive political programme could make as much political hay out of reduction to marginal status as the twenty-first Republican Party has, and the wielding of so much power while taking so little responsibility would only be possible in a political system as abjectly broken as California’s. 

They’ve created their own perfect storm, in which their marginality is no obstacle, and in which it is enough—in their efforts to destroy California’s public sphere—to sit on their hands.  They don’t have to craft policy, they don’t have to present an argument, they don’t have to win more than a handful of elections for legislative seats.  They simply rely on a fixed political system, and hope that Californians’ greed and self-interest prevents them waking up to the self-destruction they’re wreaking on their polity, their society, their public sphere.

But there are signs emerging that the Republican Party has gone too far.  The fundamentalists have outrun man of their financial backers, and look set to leave all but the most rabid of their supporters behind.  The passage of Brown’s tax measure in the fall would sadly not be an endorsement of a return to progressivism in California.  But it would at least be a momentary check on the fanaticism and drift towards lawlessness that has gripped California’s political discourse in the last decade or so, and hopefully a spur to those of us who still believe in the value of collective endeavours, in the importance of a public good, and in the idea that such a good is best achieved by those institutions—the institutions of a democratically-elected government, badly in need of reform in California—which have as their raison d’être the good of that public.

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