Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dry Tinder

Pharisaical conservatives, in blogs, newspapers, and television, express apoplectic indignation at Janet Napolitano's report about the rise of right-wing extremist political groups. It's richly ironic that these "culture warriors" now take recourse to a critique based mainly on the same "political correctness" for which they have often mocked progressives. The idea that right-wing groups are inherently moderate in their aims and methods fits nicely into the logic of the American political system, in which the "center" is decidedly right of center due to the absence of a strong socialist movement. Some will say that this changed with the election of Barack Obama, that the public has shifted left, and that Obama is himself a socialist. This is wrong.

Clear-eyed observers will note that Obama protects corporate interests, just as his predecessors in the Oval Office have done. Even though George W. Bush's swaggering, bull-in-the-china-shop approach to domestic and foreign policy had worn out its welcome,Obama's election victory was more about a successful marketing campaign than about ideology. Bizarre rhetoric about socialism (often conflated with fascism) serves only to obscure the fact that Obama takes marching orders, not from individual bankers or institutions, but from the systemic imperatives of capitalism itself. The public, conditioned by corporate media, doesn't know what socialism means. Socialism, in the public mind, is vaguely equated with Europe and higher taxes, notwithstanding actual economic policies. This "socialism" is of course never thought of as an actual mode of production differing from capitalism, and basically includes all of northern and western Europe, especially Sweden and France. Nevermind the presence of the neoliberal Sarkozy in the Palais de l'Élysée.

"Socialism" gets redefined as anything to the left of the neoliberals, conveniently preventing it from acquiring anything like a real political program. Economic policy debate now is waged between the ideologies of the latter two stages of world capitalism: Keynesianism and Neoliberalism. Some poor bastards are so confused that they try to combine the two, e.g. Brad DeLong. The name Karl Marx is rarely uttered, usually as the punch line to some bourgeois, apolegetic rhetoric about "green shoots" and "bottoming out." The point to all this is that, with actual, Marxian socialism relegated by media and policy debate to the supposedly lunatic fringe, the real lunatics now find themselves close to the so-called center. This provides a false legitimation to the plaintive wails of conservatives who find themselves "unfairly maligned" by the Department of Homeland Security's report.

According to the injured parties, "right-wing extremism" is surely an oxymoron. Because Timothy McVeigh did not exist, and neither do skinhead groups, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-immigrant militia groups, or conspiracy theories about the North American Union. No veteran of the military has ever been radicalized by the government's failure to provide promised benefits. Likewise, Fox News appeals only to moderate, but desperate, individuals who have been driven to "teabagging" by Obama's radical, "socialist" plans for altering the tax code to resemble something like it did during the Reagan era.

Back on planet Earth, these things exist, inverted, as real problems. To ignore them based on some misguided political correctness or injured feelings threatens to allow them to metastasize. Attempts by the left (if the Democrats can be considered leftists), including Napolitano, to retain "political capital" by backing off the language in the report likewise risk ignoring the danger. An economic crisis as severe as the present one causes both immense suffering and popular anger at the perceived culprits. Scapegoats are sought especially among groups, since such a widespread economic collapse cannot possibly be the work of a single individual. Thus, public anger at someone like Bernie Madoff is mostly satisfied with a prison sentence, and no one seriously considers him to be at fault for the depression. But the social domination of capital has a subjective quality that is not immediately attributable to the capitalist system itself, since it appears as the objective, unchanging conditions of life itself. It is far easier to blame Jews, Gypsies, Mexican or North African immigrants, gays, Muslims, or investment bankers than to look beyond surface phenomena. In this context, mindless punditry now becomes dangerous demagogy.

I invite you to read Moishe Postone's essay, "The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century," to understand the ever-present danger of genocide generated by capitalism itself.