Friday, July 17, 2015

Meet the Death Party

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

Scott Walker’s July 13 announcement that he is running for president brings the number of candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination to fifteen. This is not a sign of party division but an expression of its unity. There are no moderate or reasonable and thus suspect Republicans in the field. The GOP is an extremist party. While Republicans insist that they stand for cherished American ideals of limited government, balanced budgets, individual freedom, energy independence, safe streets, small business, job creation, and states’ rights, they also cherish violence and death. The GOP is a minority party that attacks the conditions of possibility of economic, social, and political life for the majority of American citizens—as a matter of principle. It does not accept the legitimacy of alternative perspectives or parties and will paralyze or shut down government to prevent others from ruling. It thinks that it alone represents the nation and should act on its behalf. It will take actions that effectively cordon, marginalize, silence, subordinate, disempower, immiserate, and kill (sometimes spiritually, sometimes more literally) those it believes oppose or imperil its domain and dominion. The GOP cannot abide having to share a democratic country with others. It’s not that the Democratic Party does not seek to govern on its own terms, but Democratic terms allow for the lives of others to flourish. For the GOP, its terms are the only terms possible or tolerable. Its success is to be measured by its casualties.

When it comes to economics, labor, health care, immigration, education, criminal justice, environmental regulation, voting, and the democratic process itself, the Republican Party is governed by a militarized neoliberal ethos that devours the means of its enactment and threatens to destroy the ends of its ambition. 1) It favors a plethora of violent austerity measures that exacerbate unemployment and reduce or eliminate assistance to those in need, aggravate home foreclosures, worsen hunger and homelessness, all targeting the lower orders and designed to keep them in their impotent, impoverished place. 2) It would dismantle public (and private) unions and roll back the hard-won achievements of generations of workers because they had the audacity to rise above their appointed station and make a better life for themselves and their children. 3) Because it loathes the very idea of a government initiative that might succeed, it works obsessively (and will tell any lie) to deny insurance for basic life-sustaining health care to millions who suffer unnecessary ills and premature death without it. 4) It would uproot and deport millions of hardworking honorable people who come to America seeking a better way of life and tear apart their families because the United States is and can no longer be a mirror of their racial reflection. 5) It starves, kills, and renders unaffordable the greatest public university system the world has ever produced because it is public and also because it teaches students to think critically about the very the country that produced it. It thereby saddles millions of students with inescapable debt thereby subverting their life prospects before they have fully begun. 6) It advocates the routine and gratuitous execution of death row inmates in whatever cruel fashion is available because it must kill them as an expression of its insatiable ressentiment at a world it can’t control. 7) Through its knee-jerk crusades for deregulation and energy extraction, it blithely degrades the earth and poisons the air and water in the name of unbridled capital accumulation and unsustainable consumer appetites, compromising the planet beyond repair and dooming generations to come to unknown hardships and hells. 8) To cement these necrotic ambitions into place, Republicans would deny millions of voters the right to exercise the franchise with bogus claims and hysterical fears of voter fraud that would return many so denied to a condition of democratic racial inferiority. 9) As for elections, Republicans, aided and abetted by an angrily aggressive and activist Roberts Court, would reduce democracy to nothing more than a private check-writing exercise by contending plutocrats who think their arbitrary economic position entitles them to political hegemony.

When it comes to gay marriage, reproductive freedom, religious privilege, and foreign policy, the Republican Party is governed by moralizing reactionary imperatives that require others to conform to its manner of living and codes of conduct regardless of their compatibility with an egalitarian democratic sensibility rooted in mutual dignity and respect. 1) It endeavors to exclude citizens unlike themselves from the enjoyment of life-defining and meaning-giving institutions such as marriage, even vowing to change the Constitution to legitimize discrimination. If you’re like Scott Walker, you’ll wrap this apartheid in professions of love, professions that conceal their anger at the formation of a world that runs counter to your system of values. 2) In its unyielding determination to eliminate abortion and force pregnancy on women, it would deny them access to health clinics for proper medical procedures and care, despite the lethal dangers such denial entails as women are forced to seek other options, where they can exercise fundamental rights to control their bodies and lives. 3) It believes that Christian fundamentalists should be able to indulge any creedal whim they entertain, in any area of life, give it the force of law, and require its intended targets to accept second-class civic treatment and status. 4) It believes the American war on terror across the globe grants it exceptional license to unleash its apocalyptic military power wherever and whenever it pleases regardless of the consequences, whether to regional stability, innocent civilians, or American citizens. Those captured instead of killed on behalf of a new Pax Americana would find themselves rendered to Guantanamo, the inmate population of which should be increased, and possibly subjected to farcical judicial proceedings in kangaroo courts or just left to rot behind bars.

Republican predations involve more than presidential campaign posturing in an election season. In the spring House and Senate Republicans presented budget plans featuring drastic spending cuts coupled with no new taxes in the name of balancing the budget by the middle of the next decade. As Paul Krugman argues, the American right would happily see Greece-style devastation unleashed on the nation they claim to love if it furthers their economic, social, and political goals. They would also, ideally, privatize Medicare as part of their ideologically-driven mission to destroy a successful Federal social program precisely because it is successful. Social Security remains a target of choice for privatization. Hatred of public things is a deadly disease with them, which is also why they refuse to invest in public infrastructure projects and public education. Unless, of course, the spending increases the defense budget, which both enriches American defense contractors and enables America to maintain its imperial will-to-power in a recalcitrant world. And also kill. Republicans seethe at a nuclear arms deal and they very idea of diplomacy with Iran because it takes the military option off the table.

Republican commitment to violence and death expresses itself best not perhaps in austerity measures or its culture wars but in its will-to-kill in the criminal justice system where it enjoys freer rein (though here there is some neoliberal pushback given the absurd costs of capital trials). Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts denounced the Unicameral’s abolition of the death penalty, insisting, against all evidence, that it was a deterrent and necessary for public safety. He seemed to believe that since Nebraska has only 10 people on death row, the legislature had no real reason to act. This supposedly judicious use of the death penalty (it’s only ten lives), a perverse calculation indeed, obviated the need for legislative action of any kind. Despite this clear democratic expression of popular will, Rickets insists that he will kill the ten men who still sit on death row and try to force a referendum on the issue. Ricketts can’t not kill.

Dale Cox, a Louisiana prosecutor in Caddo Parrish, articulates the Republican ethos even better than Ricketts when he argues that “retribution is a valid societal interest.” Society can rejuvenate itself through precision killing. Not content to let this kind of ressentiment speak for itself, Cox does his best to stoke irrational fears, citing an alleged “increase in savagery” in American life that leads logically to, yes, cannibalism (killing and eating babies). Because the death penalty is principally and properly about revenge, the state must “kill more people.” Republicans not only seek to impose their ways of life on others without apology. They also act as if the casualties they leave in their wake are proof positive of the truth of their vision as well as their commitment to it.

Republicans, of course, do not understand themselves as the party of violence and death, but the signs and evidence proliferate. When the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor, Antonin Scalia issued a bitter dissent. It is a remarkable piece of writing—not for its legal acumen but for Scalia’s sense of personal insult. To defend traditional marriage, Scalia complains, is to be deemed an “unhinged member of a wild-eyed lynch mob,” an “enemy of human decency,” and even an “[enemy] of the human race.” Scalia’s complaints amount to an inadvertent projection-cum-confession about how he views his political opponents. Accusing others of hate and of deeming their adversaries “monsters,” Scalia betrays the broader Republican mindset perfectly. In trying to deny, exclude, remove, restrict, impoverish, disappear, and disempower their enemies, they reveal the hatefulness that is at the core of their philosophies. No wonder, then, that compromise in unthinkable and defeat is unbearable. Peaceful coexistence is a condition to be overcome. The very real damage they can inflict on others thus appeals to their constituents. It shows that they are serious and to be taken seriously. The defense of principles, for them, must have consequences—especially for others. They come to life by denying it to them. The melodramatic style in which Republicans advance their causes and pursue their political agendas, positing irreparable world-historical harm to their sacred identities and identifications, to their moral values and their religious freedom, to their Constitution, and their American way of life confirms the dastardly, even monstrous nature of those who won’t let conservatives be and who seek to change the world for their own narcissistic ends. Conservatives must not only protect themselves from the claims (read: assaults) of those who invoke basic rights or equality. In the interim they must find new ways to reverse losses that cannot be allowed to stand. Believing their way of life is in danger; they do not hesitate to place others in like (or worse) danger. The GOP is in a rage. It cannot live any other way. The rest of us, if we’re not determined, will pay a steep price for their deadly ressentiment, as Nietzsche warned.

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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Trashing Greece—and Europe?

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.
For some prominent US commentators, not surprisingly the Greek vote to reject the troika’s (European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund) final bailout offer—even with its draconian terms—was an irrational act. Greeks had petulantly expressed and hoped to recapture their national pride. CNBC’s neoliberal ideologue, Joe Kernen, wondered if national pride would be able to feed the Greek people. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to keep an economy going. 

Kernen to the contrary, the appeal to nationalism during this controversy hardly started with the Greeks nor was it confined to them.  Germans had long imbibed a modern version of the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Their version has it that sober, hard working Germans save a lot. With the inauguration of the Euro, German savings were then lent to Greeks. These Greek grasshoppers borrowed more than they could ever pay back to live a life of luxury, and now the Greek grasshoppers expect hard working ants to bail them out. 

If this charming tale of ants and grasshoppers has accomplished anything it has intensified divisions in Europe between the more prosperous states and the periphery. The crisis has, however, revealed the intellectual and political bankruptcy of the major social democratic parties. These parties had from the beginning accepted the logic of the Euro, the belief that membership in a monetary union would enable substantial capital inflow and promote development. That financial bubbles were also very likely was seldom acknowledged.  In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Mark Blyth points to the role that major European banks and their high risk leverage strategies played in fostering a bubble: “European banks’ … (loans and other assets) expanded massively throughout the first decade of the euro, especially into the European periphery... [W]hen the crisis hit, French banks held the equivalent of nearly 465 billion euros in so-called impaired periphery assets, while German banks had 493 billion on their books. Only a small part of those impaired assets were Greek… Greece made up two percent of the eurozone in 2010, and Greece’s revised budget deficit that year was 15 percent of the country’s GDP—that’s 0.3 percent of the eurozone’s economy... the Greek deficit was… not a reason to panic. Unless, of course, the folks holding Greek debts, those big banks in the eurozone core, had, over the prior decade, grown to twice the size (in terms of assets) of—and with operational leverage ratios (assets divided by liabilities) twice as high as—their 'too big to fail' American counterparts  In such an over-levered world, if Greece defaulted, those banks would need to sell other similar sovereign assets to cover the losses. But all those sell contracts hitting the market at once would trigger a bank run throughout the bond markets of the eurozone that could wipe out core European banks. Clearly something had to be done to stop the rot, and that something was the troika program for Greece."

Perhaps the saddest aspect the current crisis is the unwillingness of established Left parties, including especially the Socialist Party of France, the Social Democratic Party of Finalnd, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), even now to come to the defense of Syriza. Having accepted the harsh austerity as the remedy for financial crises—and absorbed the consequence of near catastrophic unemploymentthese parties joined in condemning Syriza’s resistance to the troika’s demands. 

If the crisis has had any salutary effect, it has been to expose the dark side of neoliberalism. For public consumption neoliberals often refer to markets as natural outcomes of political and economic modernization. They know—and act—differently. Paul Krugman argues that the pension and tax changes the troika is demanding of Greece are ones they know he cannot accept politically: “The purpose must therefore be to drive him [Tsipras] from office.”

Mark Weisbrodt, Co-Director of the Center for Economics and Policy Research, adds: “There is considerable evidence that this has been the European authorities’ strategy since Syriza was elected on January 25.  Just 10 days later… the ECB cut off its main line of credit to Greek banks, even though there was no obvious reason to do so. Shortly thereafter, the ECB put a limit on how much Greek banks could lend to the government – a limit that the previous government did not have.”
Angela Merkel and her allies also want to send a signal to all Eurozone governments that in the face of crisis any attempt to defy mandated austerity programs will be met by efforts to completely derail its economy.

Kernen might want to consider an alternative narrative, one that exposes the real beneficiary of the bailout. Columbia University’s Bruce Robbins points to a fact almost universally neglected by corporate media both here an in Europe: 90 percent of the so-called bailout money merely passes through Greece, ending up back in the pockets of the European banks. He adds: “the citizens of Europe should not be on the hook for bad investments made by financiers, just as Greek taxpayers should not be held responsible for shady deals cut by corrupt politicians in cahoots with Wall Street. The banks made an investment they knew to be risky. It must be nice to lose money on a visit to a casino and then make the locals pay for your losses.” 
Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has been among the few to point repeatedly to the real beneficiary of the bailout, the German banks. For his troubles, rather than be refuted, he has experienced repeated personal attacks, including even for his choice of clothing. Upon his departure he highlighted the stakes of the current crisis: “Why did they force us to close the banks? To instil fear in people. And spreading fear is called terrorism. In a final riposte reminiscent of FDR: “I will wear the creditors’ loathing with pride.”

That Greek government is corrupt was also widely known, but this stigma also had a class tint added to it.  The varieties that corruption can take are hardly exposed in mainstream media. Nikolas Katsimpras, a lecturer at the negotiation and conflict resolution graduate program of Columbia University and a Senior Fellow at the Hellenic American Leadership Council, has said: “It would be hubris to equate the traditional 'baksheesh' to speed up a transaction, to the injurious norm of public officials’ bribery in exchange for detrimental terms in contracts with the state; or the de facto culture of elite contractors inflating costs for public contracts… It would be equally false to equate the majority of the Greek pensioners, civil servants and employees in the private sector who could never avoid paying taxessince it was deducted from their salarieswith the corrupt elites and oligarchs who criminally evaded taxes." And the remedies for this corruption also have a slant with emphasis placed on regressive sales taxes rather than taxes on the rich. The troika has claimed that wealth taxes deter growth, but given the results of austerity plans that even IMF economists acknowledge won’t work, they are hardly in a position to give advice on this subject. 
If Kernen is concerned about nationalism, he might consider the political fall-out from years of austerity in Europe.  If, as is likely, established Left parties continue to endorse austerity, the real winners of the Greek referendum may be the ultra right nationalist parties, which have opposed not only the common currency but all other forms of political collaboration.  Following the referendum, Reuters reported: 
Eurosceptics around the EU were jubilant at the rejection of what French far right National Front leader Marine Le Pen called 'the European Union oligarchy.'
'It is 'No' vote of freedom, of rebellion against European 'diktats' of those who want to impose the single currency at any price, through the most inhuman and counter-productive austerity," she said in a statement.
The troika’s rigidity has put at risk the entire European experiment. One ray of hope may lie in new left parties and movements in Europe, such as Podemos in Spain.  They may both pressure their own governments and support Syriza in dealings with the troika.  Debt relief channeled through ordinary citizens rather than banks could well catch on throughout the Eurozone.  Building alliances across borders while pressing for greater domestic equality is a gargantuan task that will entail many hardships and blind alleys.  Can Syriza and its allies proceed with less hubris and more democracy than its opponents have demonstrated? In other words can the birthplace of tragedy and democracy find some sustenance from both? Or will it be necessary for Greece to withdraw from the European Union? None of us knows for sure what will happen if that takes place. But it could possibly, after a long period of extreme hardship, sow the seeds of a future Greece much better than the neoliberal regime that now governs Europe. 

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