Bird that Sings

May 14, 2010

The Little Kingdom—UK elections and what comes after

Filed under: Politics — admin @ 11:08 am

Gordon Brown–(with apologies to the Stranglers)

“Gordon Brown, they called him a clown
Just a prat, heart could not be found
But now that’s he’s gone, it won’t be long
‘Til you raise a song to old Gordon Brown”

Well they’ve done it now. A right coalition of the Posh it is, Eton, Oxbridge and all that: Tory-Liberal, where the metro sexual elite meet.

What is most striking to American eyes though is how the clueless Brits desperately sought renewal with American style televised political debates aimed at approximating the vacuity of our own.

When they announced the debates you knew they were heading for trouble and sure enough; there was Nick Clegg, a wide-eyed Nick if ever there was, emerging as the fresh young thing of the moment.

The debates made Clegg into a phenomenon, a cross between Barack Obama, Homer Simpson and the New Musical Express cover band of the week until after a meteoric two and half week rise he, not coincidentally, fell to earth like a burning piece of cosmic crap. Or so he would have if the Conservative Party had managed to come up with a majority on their own in the House of Commons. In the absence of that majority, Clegg’s Liberal Democrats were suddenly thrust into the breach of a hung Parliament.

Nick, who in a fairer world might have made an excellent British consular deputy in Trieste or Ljubljana, is now deputy Prime Minister.

Nick had a choice: to form a minority government and rule with Labour, or go whole hog and rule with the Tories. If he had chosen Labour, they would have bided their time and screwed him royally, but . . .he would have gotten a referendum on some form of Proportional representation–and a fair bit of Labour support for it–and ultimately gone down as the man who saved the Liberal-Democratic Party.

Instead Nick chose the Tories and now the odds are 50-50 on whether he actually lives long enough to regret it, or whether Cameron and he are carried out of Whitehall with their heads on pikes first, well before a new election can be called. Meanwhile all the issues dear to Nick, proportional representation, civil liberties, the environment, have been ransomed off to some future time, presumably after rising oceans subsume most of the Little Kingdom.

Yet as always in British politics, it didn’t have to be this way.

The roots of the British dilemma actually go back thirty-five years or so, to the early and mid Seventies.

It was in those long ago days, under the rule of Labour PM Harold Wilson that then Secretary of State for Industry, Tony Benn and his deputy, Eric Heffer first proposed a National Enterprise Board. It’s intent was to provide struggling British Industry with investment funding and give the government the ability to take failing firms into public ownership.

However Wilson, after agreeing to the plan in principle tabled it, moved Benn to the Energy Ministry and sacked Heffer. The Industrial plan as presented in Parliament was watered down beyond recognition, and then voted down.

The failure of Labour to reorganize British Industry when it had the chance heralded the end of manufacturing in the first manufacturing country on earth.

Today, even the famed British Auto Industry no longer exists.

The British economy is now over seventy percent service based, and much of that is dedicated to the Financial Services Industry, based in the “City of London.”

All through the end of Tory rule in the Eighties and into the New Labour, Blair years, when Finance looked to be endlessly expanding, this didn’t seem like a bad deal. Now, with Finance seemingly subject to an endless cycle of booms, bubbles and busts and maybe even, dare one whisper, the end of the Capitalist Road, the prospect doesn’t look as bright.

The Tory-Liberal alliance will not want to face that of course. They’re busy planning cuts to public and social services, in a fanciful attempt at alleviating the enormous British budget deficit, even as the gathering tsunami of Finance Apocalypse is sucking up the cold grey sea off the rocks at Lyme Regis.

Labour, now in opposition, seems equally clueless. Unfortunately, in post New Labour Britain, clueless is about as good as it gets, so until the coming Financial collapse sends Cameron and Clegg scurrying for their miserable lives, the best show in Britain will be the battle for leadership of the Labour Party.

Here, the cast of possible entrants alone makes the show worth the price of admission.

There is the redoubtable and fortuitously named Ed Balls, formerly a stalwart of New (capitalist) Labour, now a born again Socialist, or so he says. There is the left wing hope, Irish Jon Cruddas and finally, the two Milliband brothers: former Foreign Secretary and New Labour whiz kid, David Milliband and his younger brother, former Climate Change Secretary, Ed Milliband. David is an already announced candidate for the leadership post and Ed, a likely entry, setting up a Shakespearean “War of the Millibands.”

The Milliband boys are the sons of the late and revered British Marxist theoretician Adolphe “Ralph” Milliband, himself a working class Polish Jewish refugee who escaped from Belgium in 1940 just ahead of the Panzer Divisions.

They are said to have been a very close knit family which makes not only the War of the Millibands, but the politics of the two boys, even more interesting.

In the early Seventies–about the same time that Tony Benn and Eric Heffer were getting the run around–Ralph Milliband came to the reluctant conclusion that the British Labour Party, despite it’s professed Socialism, could not be trusted to stand up for the interests of the Working Class–let alone Socialism, because it was too tied to the political self interest of its Parliamentary members.

An obvious conclusion, but a truism nevertheless. Because of it, Milliband ultimately became a signatory of “Charter 88,” a movement for Parliamentary reform, proportional representation and the creation of a written Constitution that was initiated by Agit-Pop star Billy Bragg among others. Twenty two years later, it is the principals embedded in Charter 88 that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats were championing and which, seen from this distance, seem worth championing.

Since the Little Kingdom keeps borrowing all the worst stuff from us, it seems reasonable to propose that they at least consider some of the best. This would mean abolishing the bloody House of Lords and replacing it with a 100 person Senate elected by–I dunno, proportional representation, to go with a written Constitution.

They should do this, but probably won’t and frankly in their current straits, it doesn’t matter much anyway. The progressive possibilities of the Labour leadership battle, and for what happens to a Labour Party cut adrift after almost twenty years of now discredited New Labour ideology is the thin strand of hope to which UK citizens might cling.

It’s not much, but then as Ralph Milliband taught us and Barack Obama keeps proving everyday, in electoral politics, Hope is just a four letter word.

March 11, 2010

The Little Putz

Filed under: Politics — admin @ 2:54 am

I was thinking about Rahm Emanuel last Saturday morning and how he’s spreading the word that he’s not responsible for the policy debacles of the Obama Administration (because the White House hasn’t been listening to his tough minded advice).

Then on Sunday morning, I started thinking about Rahm again when I read that the Dead Zones in the Ocean, especially the Pacific and especially the Pacific Northwest, are spreading rapidly, alarming scientists who don’t know why. And then, when I read that Rahm apparently referred to Liberals pushing Obama from the Left—especially on health care— as “fucking retards,” I thought that we needed to find Rahm an appropriate diminutive as well. Let me suggest here, “The Little Putz.”


            You can see the reason of course, behind the Little Putz’s off handed dismissal of Move-on/Daily Kos/MSNBC types. For anyone to have believed that Barack Obama was something more than a symbolic change candidate, implies for me at least, a level of credulity one generally attributes to pre-schoolers.

            The Little Putz was never taken in; he understood Obama. He also understood—or thought he understood—what it took to pass a tough-minded package of reforms through a dysfunctional Congress.

The big problem with the Little Putz is that he’s fighting the last war.

For the past generation Democrats could argue that in the words of Reggae poet, Linton Kwesi Johnson, “all we’re doing is defending.”

            Starting with the election of Ronald Reagan and running all through the Clinton and Bush years, the Republican free market fundamentalist argument has been in ascendance. Democrats have had to defend every inch of the gains of the New Deal and the Great Society; of what used to be called the American Way. While economically, culturally, socially, and environmentally the period has been one long unmitigated disaster—which the Democrats have largely acceded and bought in to—politically they’ve held their own surprisingly well. As a Democratic attack dog par excellence, the Little Putz was well suited for duty in this period.

            Now, with the collapse of the market fundamentalist model, everything has changed and Obama was supposed to represent that change. That he doesn’t is actually a larger tale in which the Little Putz plays a . . . smaller role.


In retrospect, even if people had understood that Obama’s was an impossible candidacy it wouldn’t have mattered. Who would have been elected in his place?

            No, we deserved Obama, just like we deserve the “magical and revolutionary” Apple I-pad and now we’ve got them.

However the principal flaw in Obamaism is its structural inability to incorporate the politics of class. This is not because President Obama and his advisors are stupid, it’s because the Obama campaign was not, and could not be about Class and still win an election.

A black candidate who campaigned on the basis of uniting the white and non-white working class against a failing system that rests, Atlas like, on its’ stooped shoulders, would seem a frightening, angry candidate to almost everyone else.

Nonetheless, the inability of Obama to talk about class in an authentic way means the Administration is ceding the terms of the conversation to others and in that spirit, I am put in mind of a long ago conversation with my late grandparents in their apartment in Northeast Philadelphia.

Both of them had been working class radicals when they were young but over the years their politics had evolved into a cranky, slightly paranoid, cold war liberalism. It was in this latter incarnation that I experienced them.

On this particular occasion I found them both insisting—surprisingly—that if I wanted to understand the Russian Revolution, I had to read Maxim Gorky’s “Mother.”

They became quite adamant about it, which made it difficult to understand my grandfather, whose accent was more or less impenetrable in the best of circumstances. But now they were on either side of me, shouting and gesturing in my face, “Read “Mother!” they insisted, “it’s the Truth!”

 And so I did.

I have to admit, given the build-up, at first “Mother—the book” was disappointing. “Mother” appeared to be a standard agit-prop recounting of the horrible lives of Russian workers and peasants in the run-up to the failed Revolution of 1905. The “Mother,” an illiterate, habitually battered widow of a drunken worker at first listens in with trepidation to the political meetings her worker-activist son conducts at their modest cottage.

But then she has her epiphany. The Mother is not sure about all the political jargon the young people use, but now she tells them fervently that yes, they have to tell the people “the truth.”           

What the Mother means by this is the big truth of the powerlessness of the people in the face of the grinding poverty that rules their lives, and the political-social autocracy that enforces its rule.

I think this is also “the truth” my grandparents were talking about and the Mother’s epiphany inevitably led me to my own.

The revolt against the inchoate sense of one’s own powerlessness is the true source of populism, whether of the right or the left. However this populist impulse to “the big truth” can lead to 9/11 conspiracy theories just as easily as it can lead to the insistence of the Tea Parties that the government has been taken over by Banker loving Socialists.

In this political environment, attacking the Republicans for their obstructionism is almost useless and an attack dog like Rahm Emanuel is as well. People do not want politics as usual; they want the truth.

The big failure of Obamaism is not the failure of The Little Putz to enact a modest package of reforms through Congress, nor the let down for liberals who wanted something more. It is the bigger, and almost inevitable— given the fairy tale nature of their campaign—failure of the Obamaites to construct an honest political narrative—the truth— that speaks to the powerlessness of people over a world gone horribly wrong.



March 4, 2009

The Years of Agonizing Reappraisal

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — admin @ 6:06 pm

I was thinking about going down to DC for the inaugural last month, but decided it was too cold to sell my “I was there for the Fall of Capitalism but all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

So I stayed home which was probably a good thing, as I don’t think it was the right crowd for my product. Even now, my impression is that people don’t really get it: that despite the great gifts of Obama, the first political-economic initiatives of his Administration suffer from a “systemic cognitive deficit.”

Then too, as a friend of mine says, “Barack didn’t put in for this.”

Obama’s 2008 campaign was like a good pop movie, but it wasn’t a populist campaign, nor a campaign that challenged the underlying assumptions of the system: it was a Public Relations campaign with Obama as “the brand” representing Hope& Change.

It was a great campaign for the end of Reagan era, but God willing, Barack was not only the best of the “branded” candidates, but the last.

Not only is the Reagan era, the Conservative era over, but so is the era of Finance Capitalism, though we are not yet ready to absorb that, nor are we ready for what comes next.
So let’s just call these, “The Years of Agonizing Reappraisal.”

Specifically, the big problem that Obama and the rest of us face is that the answers to the twin dilemmas of excess debt and falling demand plaguing the world economy are diametrically opposed.

The stimulus aims to “jump start” the economy by recreating the missing “Demand” that our missing jobs, vanished savings and mounting personal bankruptcies have led to.

But of course the way we created all that Demand in the first place was by over consuming; by running up lunatic levels of personal debt—often perforce—that mirrored what Wall Street and Big Business were doing on an enormous scale with leveraged debt in the Macro Financial economy.

In the economy of the 90’s and the aught’s, there was an explicit trade-off for your willingness to go deeply into debt. You were now empowered to buy more than you could ever reasonably afford to buy—say for example a house whose price had been artificially pumped up, in turn, by the speculative logic of the debt system.

You were rewarded by the system for being an irresponsible Super-consumer who would never ever be able to get out debt again for the rest of your (miserable) life.

The neo-cons even came up with a suitably Orwellian name for this system: they called it “The Ownership Society.”

In all, it was an evil system riding for a fall and now, like Humpty Dumpty it has.
Now we can’t recreate that missing Demand, we can’t “jump start” the economy, no matter how big the financial stimulus; we can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again even if we wanted to.

We are in a cycle of falling demand because no one can give us credit anymore to keep up our over consumption. We are in a cycle of falling demand because the System itself has failed.

Of late though, I’ve been wondering why the mainstream economists either don’t see or don’t want talk about this, and find myself thinking back to a long ago conversation with a friend who later became an oft quoted institutional economist in the 90’s.

I ran into him at the crossroads of campus late one afternoon as he was coming out of a Hegel seminar, taught by a well known dissident Communist political philosopher. The seminar was invitation only—my friend was a nominally Marxist Phd candidate—and I was curious to know what the hell was going on in there. He told me only that it was pretty heavy going, and when I replied that at least it would help him in his future academic career he just shook his head sadly.
No, he said, it wasn’t going to help at all.

“Larry,” he explained, speaking carefully—as one would speak to a small child—“what people in the Economics department call Macro-economics is not what people like you or me call Macro-economics. In the Department they’re not interested in philosophy, they don’t see the connections and they’re not particularly interested in making them. It’s mechanical, it’s about equations and modeling out how the elements of the real economy work together, and they’re pretty good at it. But that’s all they’re interested in.”

In the classic book 1972 book “Reinventing Anthropology,” Dell Hymes points out a similar dynamic in his own discipline. “How much of what goes in departments is for the sake of mankind’s self-knowledge (let alone liberation) and how much for the sake of perpetuating, extending and propagating departments? . . . ”
“ . . . By virtue of its subject matter, the study of man, Anthropology, is unavoidably a political and ethical discipline, not merely an empirical specialty. It is founded in a personal commitment that has inescapably a reflective philosophical dimension.”

Substitute the word “Anthropology” with the name of any of the other Social Sciences: Sociology, History, Political Science, even Economics and you get the idea.

Right now, Larry Summers and Tim Geitner clearly have the upper hand in Obama Administration councils, by virtue of being economics professionals. The problem with Summers and Geitner however, judging by the solutions so far proposed, particularly their half assed bank bailout scheme, is they’re wearing ideological blinders.

To Summers, Geitner and Fed Chairman Bernanke, there is no alternative to the “free market” and apparently even short term nationalization of the banks is off the table. Instead, we have the Fed and Treasury socializing the losses of Companies that are too big to fail like Citigroup, AIG, and soon Bank of America, to avoid “spooking investors.”

Of course this bit of economic legerdemain fools no one, let alone investors. Except for the terrified political professionals in the White House, it seems pretty obvious to everyone else that Treasury is not only risking the dollars of taxpayers, but the whirlwind of their coming political wrath.

Looked at empirically, it’s possible to see exactly where the world economy is headed: toward what economists call stagnation, in this case, medium or long-term stagnation. Obama clearly has a lot on his platter, and it would be a shame if his initiatives on Health Care Reform, the Environment, Labor and potentially even the Middle East were all overwhelmed by his administration’s failure to deal honestly and effectively with this ongoing crisis.

President Obama now has a choice that will define his Presidency: go along with Summers, Geitner and Bernanke, or begin to develop new lines of thinking about the economy; particularly, about the efficacy and sanctity of the so-called free market.

In the meantime I’m going down the basement to set up the silk screen for a new T-shirt I’m printing up to sell along with the first. It’ll read, “The truth is a commodity too.”

November 25, 2008

Nationalizing Chrysler

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — admin @ 1:09 pm

Yes the time has come to talk of final things, and no I don’t mean the end of the Mayan Calendar. I’m talking about Nationalizing Chrysler.

According to Nouriel Roubini’s Global Economic Monitor, the Democratic Congressional plan to save the Big 3 would  “ Allow automakers to tap $25billion under the $700 billion TARP program as a 7-10 year loan at 5-9% interest rate. Loans will be conditional upon placing restrictions on bonuses, executive-compensation, golden parachutes, improving fuel efficiency with rigorous independent oversight and changes in the management. Gov’t would get stock warrants and no stock dividends would be paid during the loan period.”

While one hopes the Democratic Congressional Auto rescue plan gets passed soon, the truth, as we all know, is that it will solve neither the obvious nor underlying economic problems of the auto industry. For that, we’re going to need a more fundamental approach.

The Democratic Congressional proposal should be broadened to allow a government bailout of both GM and Ford that sees the US Treasury permanently assuming the health care and “Legacy” costs of the two companies. In exchange, we the people will receive a minority equity—and voting— stake in the companies, as well as significant public and union representation on their Boards.

Chrysler meanwhile, would be bought from Cerberus Capital Management—like immediately. As it happens, Cerberus is, at this writing, desperately trying to unload Chrysler, which they bought for almost nothing from the German Auto Company, Daimler in the summer of 2007. For Daimler, the key part of the deal was getting someone to take on Chrysler’s legacy costs. The US Treasury can now return the favor and save Chrysler from being completely run into the ground by Cerberus, which was woefully miscast as an auto holding company in the first place.

The new company could be renamed “US/Chrysler,” and in the course of a year or two transformed into a dedicated green car company whose chief line would be a new, stripped down, low cost  (ie., compact, GPS less, no Satellite radio) hybrid. The car would go for approximately seven to eight thousand dollars and low cost auto loans to make the car affordable for every American family could be financed through a new US/Chrysler Bank.

The point of the car would be first, to make cheap hybrids that got 100 miles to the gallon ubiquitous in America. Second, the existence of such a vehicle should scare GM and Ford into coming up with something that could compete. Third, the transformation of the US auto industry would either rout the Japanese, German and Korean Car companies or force them to come up with something even greener.

What we’re talking about is no longer a race to the bottom, but a race to the top.
Of course that’s not going to please everybody.

There has been a laissez fairest argument advanced on the Right over the past several weeks about the power of  “creative destruction” in Capitalism. Through this prism, the free market is seen as an elemental force of nature that cannot, nor should not, be dammed up.

Briefly, this argument is a steaming pile of shit. Creative Destruction may work in the early phases of Capitalism, as part of the bloody business of primitive (Capital) accumulation, but in Late Capitalism, “creative destruction” is a euphemism for “race to the bottom.”

What the “creative destruction” argument really means to the neo-liberals and neo-cons who advance it, is that Detroit must be allowed to fail because it’s no longer viable. But have no fear they tell us. Through bankruptcy GM for one, can dump its outdated labor contracts; restructure its labor costs, close unprofitable plants, and drop their onerous pensions and health care plans.

These economies will then supposedly make post-bankruptcy Detroit competitive again in world markets against leaner, meaner Japanese, and Korean companies that don’t have Detroit’s legacy or union labor costs hanging like a millstone around their necks.

This argument conveniently forgets that it was not the “free market” that created what we call the American Way of life. What created the post War economic boom that characterized “the American Century” was an Industrial working class that was paid well enough, for the first time in history, to actually consume the products they were producing.

The creative destruction argument also conveniently skirts the ethical and moral issues raised by cutting people’s pensions, retirement benefits and health care after they have spent their lives working, in good faith, to accrue them. If this is the kind of good faith that “free market capitalism” now represents, then nobody should get too upset if and when a dispossessed working class decides that maybe potential future capitalists should be thrown into the river at birth.

Finally, it was the abandonment of American manufacturing in the 70’s that led directly to the rise of the Financial Service economy in the 80’s. The finance economy of the last twenty-five years created enormous new pools of wealth for the US and the world, but was based on consumer and leveraged corporate debt rather than actually making things. Surprising nearly everyone, this enormous slagheap of debt— rising up by the side of the glittering new pools of financial wealth— turned out to be more than just an aesthetic problem. Now the man made mountain of toxic debt has collapsed and it’s going take us a long time to dig out from under it.

However, as is often the case in life, the way of out of this crisis is precisely the same as the way in. It’s time to put our collective national creativity to work, not by destroying the last vestige of our industrial base, but— by all means necessary— beginning to make American manufacturing viable again.

November 12, 2008

The Word from California

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — admin @ 11:20 pm

The success of California proposition 8, banning Gay marriage in the state should be a wake up call for a Democratic Party, fairly and righteously hung over after the Obama victory celebration.

While Paul Krugman is correct to hail the “end of the Monster Years” of Right wing dominance over the national discourse, the Right did not crash and burn in this election.

The Republicans are however, on the defensive, and if the National Democratic Party has any sense they will spend the next year keeping the Right on the run. The best way to do that is to “flip the script” and take away their issues.

With the failure of so called free market economics—or “Market fundamentalism”— along with the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Republicans have only the “social issues” left in their quiver. Of these, Gay marriage is perhaps the most potent arrow of all.

Clearly the Democrats don’t want to reenact Bill Clinton’s incredible political blunder in making “Gays in the military” the first thing he addressed as President. But sometime in the first year of the Obama Presidency, Democrats should introduce a National Domestic Partners Act, as well as strengthening and passing Barney Frank’s landmark “Employment non-Discrimination Act” (HR3685).

In point of fact Comrade Joe Lieberman (aka “the people’s man”) has already introduced comprehensive Domestic Partners legislation for Federal employees (S2521) and it shouldn’t be but so difficult to extend this same protection to everyone in the country, gay and straight.

While many Americans feel quite content in contesting the “Gay Agenda,” far fewer consider themselves out and out bigots willing to deny other people basic Human Rights. Domestic Partnership and Gay Civil Rights are, on balance, political winners that the Democrats should pass and sign into law in Obama’s first year in office.

The other political no brainer for Democrats in Congress—while President Obama stands above politics of course— are the creation of Financial Crimes and War Crimes tribunals.

The weakness of candidate Obama all through the primary season was that he didn’t connect with working class white or Hispanic voters. In the general election this problem was neutralized by the financial crisis, after which, all Obama had to do was talk like a Democrat to gain instant populist street credibility.

However already, the President elect is running into trouble on this front. The recent economic summit showed incredible—and uncharacteristic—political tone deafness on the part of the Obama people. The absence of Labor—or even Labor economists—at the summit, signaled the continued hegemony of the failed financial elites over economic decision making in the new administration.

While even these elite economists will, no doubt, propose a massive stimulus plan as an ameliorative for the coming economic “nuclear winter,” the negative symbolism of Labor’s absence at the summit is important.

The pain of the recession is likely to erode good feeling for Obama among the people who will be hit the hardest, and they are the Democratic political base.

It will therefore be important for the Democrats in Congress to establish who is responsible for the collapse of the financial system and to hold those parties accountable. If poor and working class Americans are going to suffer through this economic collapse, then the perpetrators of the disaster—and especially those who directly profited from it— should have to suffer more. And while the elite economists will no doubt mutter about politicians behaving as if this were a “banana republic,” establishing responsibility for crimes against society is the way politics is supposed to work in a democracy.

Similarly, when War Crimes have been committed by the previous administration, this is not a time to let bygones be bygones.

These were not, are not, victimless crimes. Hundreds of thousands have died, been maimed or had their lives destroyed as a result of the lies that got us into Iraq. It does not seem much to ask that the actual liars should have to bear, at the very least, the legal responsibility for their actions.

And then of course, there was the torture: not isolated instances of torture, but a systematic policy of torture set at the highest levels of our government. In order for America to regain at least a measure of her previous standing in the world, these crimes against humanity have to be addressed.

The Word from California is . . . to begin with, Justice.

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