Sunday, May 20, 2012

Apocalypse Impending?

After Kampala, Lusaka feels like a ghost town, the orderly, tree-lined, manicured streets comparatively devoid of people and, more happily, of the chaos that characterises Uganda’s capital.  Lusaka resembles nothing so much as a series of suburbs without a city.  Neighbourhoods in town bear a resemblance to what I imagine many an Orange County suburb would look like if nobody did any maintenance for several years.

And in California, we might be on the verge of discovering for ourselves what happens when we endorse long-term and systematic neglect of our infrastructure, our public sector, and our social provisions.  Because as things stand, the combination of the state’s bizarre supermajority requirements, the mangled tax structure, and the public indifference has completely inhibited our ability to plan for the long term, to envision any kind of investment in institutions which promote social welfare, or to even have a meaningful conversation about our state’s priorities.

Faced with a formidable budget deficit, the democratic deficit which results from our structural political dysfunction mandates round after round of cuts.  The political rhetoric of the Republican Party, which is assuming the character of a fundamentalist, oath-taking, pledge-signing cult, has persuaded a growing number of Californians that being “against taxes” is a rational philosophical stance.  It is this incredible stupidity which explains the willingness of lower- and middle-income Californians to vote against tax measures.  More often than not, these measures are focussed primarily on the wealthy, and would result in a higher educational standard, more affordable universities, and better social services all around—all things from which the lower- and middle-classes stand to benefit considerably given their inability to resort to the private sector which services the needs of the affluent. 

The conversation surrounding high speed rail is a perfect example of the bizarre manner of thinking that has possessed our politics.  It has come to revolve almost entirely around the short-term bottom line, with no consideration given to the long-term benefits of reducing road and air traffic or to the revitalisation it could bring to parts of the state.  It is an illustration of the extent to which our government and society quite literally no longer have the capacity to undertake large-scale projects of either an infrastructural or social character. 

By now, even Democrats in California have largely resigned themselves to cuts—cuts which are falling heavily on medical and social services for the poor, accessibility of public spaces,  the provision of early childhood education, California Community Colleges, California State Universities, and the University of California campuses, and which will shortly be hitting K-12 education state-wide.  Instead of taking aim at Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative behind the state’s gridlock, Jerry Brown is using exactly the same kinds of short-term fixes he told us he’d be too savvy to resort to.  In so doing he is steadfastly ignoring the democratic deficit.  He is legitimising the very process which plagues our state, and getting himself off the hook by telling people that austerity is the only path. 

The band-aid approach and the gradual erosion of our public sector will perhaps soften the blow that is coming from disinvestment.  But sooner or later our already-creaky social framework will exhibit signs of rot and neglect where not outright dismantlement.  As the conditions in and rigour of schools decline, as our universities serve ever smaller and continuously more exclusive segments of our population, as the evisceration of social services leads to even more obscene levels of inequality, our society will grow more dangerously polarised. 

The greed and lack of collective responsibility which increasingly characterises our approach to politics will spawn a society in which people have even less in common with one another and therefore less reason to look kindly upon collective investments which bear universal fruits which lead in turn to widespread social and economic uplift.  We’re kidding ourselves if we pretend that we’re not on the long-term road to some kind of social ruin. 

Because it’s no coincidence that there are people benefiting from the political misrule that seems to have Sacramento in its iron grip.  The situation is not by any means anarchic, although that might be the state which best describes the budgetary politics which have in recent years usurped political morality as the benchmark for rationalising economic policy.  Rather, it is one directed towards the welfare of particular social and economic interests: the people who can afford the neglect of public schools thanks to their ability to send their children off to private schools; the people who benefit from corporate loopholes or the state’s refusal to tax oil companies; the people who decline to pay their employees decent wages or take the welfare of those employees into consideration when designing their business plans.  This is not, whatever the Republican Party tells us, about the well-being of Jane and Joe Public.

The fact that a small but influential number of people benefit from the chaos in California gives the lie to the Republican Party’s attempt to elide the interests of their corporate handlers with the public good.  Rand Paul, one of the up-and-coming leaders of the lunatic brigade in the Republican Party, once declared: “There are no rich, there are no poor, there are no middle class.  We are all interconnected in the economy”.  Aside from being a sterling example of the breathtaking stupidity which characterises the Party in the twenty-first century, this remark is illustrative of the thinking which beguiles people into acting against their interest.  Of course, we’re all interconnected.  But we’re connected in the sense that there are people who benefit from others’ misfortunes.  We’re linked inasmuch as there are people who suffer needlessly when others gain all out of proportion to their need.

It is the nature of this interconnection which we need to understand and think about.  We should be wary indeed of allowing the persistence of a structure of government which mandates cuts to the services which sustain the quality of life of a majority of our people.  We should expect more of our political leadership than that they condone greed and implement socially-destructive cuts simply because the alternatives would require more thought and risk on their part. 

California is heading for the rocks, in a more serious way that most of us have dared contemplate.  Jerry Brown’s current charade is insulting and dangerous, as is the general pretence that we can continue to disinvest without feeling serious consequences.  We need political leadership that shows some spine and some responsibility, and which doesn’t continually pass the buck to voters.  And we need citizens who think beyond the next pay check, and who don’t shrink from the task of imagining and sustaining a fair society which prizes the realisation of equality over admiring the successes of a few from afar.  We all need to step up to the challenge, and to do so soon, before we begin living the consequences more fully.

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