Dead Men Left

Friday, October 29, 2004

Political disintegration: hanging chads have nothing on this

Another blistering attack from Alexander Cockburn on the collapse of the US Left before the charismatic might of John F. Kerry:

I asked one usually radical friend of mine, now a Kerrycrat, how she could support a fellow who pledges a “better”, wider war in Iraq and then a march on Teheran. “Oh” she said airily, “you can’t believe anything a candidate will say.”

...[V]oting for John Kerry now is like voting for LBJ in 1964 with full precognition of what he was going to do in Vietnam for the next four years. By all means vote for the guy if you think your ballot will really count in keeping Ralph Nader out of the White House, but don’t do so with the notion that all along John Kerry has been holding a secret withdrawal plan close to his chest and that his first three months in office will see the US Marines haul down the colors from the US embassy in Baghdad, scoop Ambassador Negroponte off the roof and head for home.

There was a faint glimmer of this in 1997, with Blair. As Jeremy Hardy said, eveybody knew he was just coming out with the Tory policies to get elected: once he was in power he'd cunningly throw off the disguise and "nationalise the banks, or something." He, like many others, underestimated the complete domination of the neo-liberal consensus: no matter which party is in power, throughout the developed North, the same rules apply on major chunks of economic policy, and the domestic agenda more widely. Even the minimal scope for differentiation offered by what was known, dismissively, in post-1945 Britain as "Butskellism" has been squeezed out. The choice between relatively more or relatively less government intervention in the economy has been made for us, and with it go deeper choices about equity, justice, and the status of our democracy. There will be some squabbling over the implementation of an economic consensus, with a "competition" to perform this task with more or less efficiency; but the direction of policy remains the same.

If that applies even to a nominally social-democratic party like Labour, with its long-nutured roots in the organised labour movement, and its 80-year hegemony on working class politics, how much more must it apply to a creature of the US ruling class like the Democratic Party? (In Britain, there is a peculiar assumption that, if the Republicans are like the Conservatives, the Democrats must be like Labour. They aren't. All the trade union donations in America won't change the Democratic Party's fundamental status as a second pillar of the US political establishment.)

Disturbingly, even where some degree of differentiation might be presumed to remain for a major world power, in matters of foreign policy, the drive towards a consensus has emerged. The Democrats have pathetically trailed the neo-cons throughout the "war on terror", with a few rare (and honorable) exceptions. Kerry is not one of that number. We should not forget that Clinton prepared the way for much Bush Jr's blase disregard for the international order, amongst much else: the strikes on Iraq in 1998, the attack on Serbia and Kosovo, were both conducted in defiance of international law. It is, needless to say, not so much that as a socialist it is possible to privilege international law above all else, or to pretend it represents a manifestation of global values; but without the preparations made by Clinton, the Bush clique's rewriting of the rules in their favour would be so much the harder.

Added to this mix, post 9/11, has been the ready adoption of the rhetoric and the presumed goals of the "war on terror". What these goals consist of is a question never considered; on a day-to-day basis, properly political questions are forced to revolve around the issue of "security", a series of technological quick-fixes - arbitrary detentions, ID cards - that do little but reproduce actual insecurity. In international terms, the "war on terror" has quite clearly come to mean little more than the reassertion of US power globally, most particularly in the Middle East.

This is, perhaps, the driving force behind the steady disintegration of the US political system, seen most markedly in the last few weeks. (Taxloss provides a quick, if slightly too alarmist, summary.) To the well-known scheming of the Republicans, we should add the Democrats's own machinations in stamping on dissent: the near-hysteria that has greeted Nader's principled campaign has been quite sickening, not least when it has been in the service of dead-beat Senator Kerry and "four more years" in Iraq - if not longer. The net result has been to create a climate in which questioning the occupation - let alone addressing wider concerns about the distribution of power and wealth inside America - has become quite impossible. Congratulations, everyone.