The Politics of Inverted Fear

— The Editors

THE PERVASIVE SENSE of insecurity and menace in our society today is not unfounded. Far from it — but the reality of the crisis we face is turned upside down by a manipulated and cynical discourse.

Let’s pose a simple question. There are now 45-50 million people in the United States who lack health insurance. Millions more will lose their insurance through job loss, or just because they get sick. What is the greater threat to them: a medical crisis that financially wipes out them and their families — or being hit by a terrorist attack?

We’ll get back to the issue of the “#8220;terrorist threat” — both as it really is, and as it’s imagined. But first, given that no rational person will seriously conclude that terrorism is the greater threat to people in this country who don’t have or may lose health insurance, let’s look at how the discussion of the massive social crisis of U.S. society has been inverted.

The Tea Party movement, largely a creation of corporate funding and Fox News, turned the health care discussion into paranoid ravings about “#8220;government death panels,” as if the insurance industry itself didn’t already decide who can live and who dies. Yet many of those ordinary Tea Party folks are themselves at risk of ruin, should they lose their jobs or get cut off the insurance rolls when they get sick.

Republican ideologues have seized the initiative, labeling “#8220;runaway government spending” as more dangerous than mass unemployment and collapsing infrastructure. Large numbers of ordinary, mostly white people can be attracted to lunatic arguments that the climate crisis is a hoax to bring about the New World Order, or that president Barack Obama represents a secret Muslim takeover of America. To be sure, such paranoia is always present in the culture — but how have its purveyors managed to practically hijack the political agenda?

We’ll try to explore that question here. Part of the answer is that the crisis itself is so massive. Partly it’s that the Democrats, elected with large majorities on the promise of change, have done so little. And partly also, it’s that the left is all but invisible and that social movements have not yet risen to the challenges that the crisis presents in people’s lives.

The Threat We Face

To see the real threats we face — and the hopeful signs for the future — you don’t have to look farther than California’s crisis in higher public education, and the response that’s been building since last summer towards the campus mobilizations called for March 4, 2010. That struggle is the central feature of this issue of Against the Current.

Starved of funding in the state’s budget collapse, the University of California and California State University systems are imposing savage tuition and fee increases, along with academic and service cuts, threatening tens of thousands of students’ access to their educations and degrees. Some can’t enroll in required classes already filled to capacity; many others are sleeping in cars or relying on free food pantries (National Public Radio report, “#8220;All Things Considered,” January 27 — the afternoon of president Obama’s State of the Union speech).

Students and campus workers are fighting back, as so many industrial unions sadly failed to do. It’s in that resistance, not in the corridors of Congress, where an agenda that faces the needs of the social crisis can take shape. With all due respect to president Obama, now and next year are the worst of times to contemplate a “#8220;spending freeze,” let alone one that exempts the bloated military budget.

The struggle in California comes at a moment when the Democrats have proven to be the most bumbling and incompetent governing party in the recent history of any major bourgeois democracy. After letting the tea-baggers seize the initiative, the Democrats lost their safest Senate seat not because the electorate had turned dramatically right, but because the Democratic campaign was complacent and arrogant, and more broadly because people were demoralized and sickened by the bank and Wall Street bailouts while unemployment grows. They see their own lives as well as the country stuck in the mud, whether they look at the economy, health care or Afghanistan.

The Massachusetts voters weren’t necessarily thinking biblically on January 19, but they certainly sent the message of the verse: “#8220;Because you are lukewarm I will vomit you from my mouth.”

The point isn’t that the Democratic Congress and Obama administration failed to implement a genuinely progressive social program — they never had any such agenda, and the notion that they had any serious elements of one is a delusion within sections of the left. Rather, the Democrats’ own centrist corporate agenda has blown up in their face. They have succeeded almost exclusively in subsidizing corporate America and the financial sector — the ruling class’s option for stopping a complete economic meltdown — but failed to deliver changes that would give people hope for improvements in their own lives.

The House Democrats allowed their promised “#8220;change” to be held hostage by the pack of mangy “#8220;Blue Dogs” who oppose everything from the public health care option to women’s right to abortion — many of whom were recruited to run by the party chairman Howard Dean (this was thought to be a clever political move at the time). It’s somewhat encouraging that the Congressional Black Caucus at least is showing its anger over how little has trickled down for African Americans so far — not because they expected president Obama to be a crusader for Black Power, but simply because the African-American economic and social emergency is so terrifying.

The reality remains that “#8220;race matters” in American politics today as much as ever. Some white people hit by the crisis, the failure of reform and the nearly-jobless “#8220;recovery” are turning toward the kind of lunatic rightwing answers that they rejected in the 2008 election — not all white people, obviously, but enough to change the political momentum. Black America’s response is a different one on the whole, more realistic and rooted in a struggle for survival. This does not mean that the Caucus or the African- American community will “#8220;break with Obama” — they will remain fiercely loyal. But the fact that they will no longer remain silent and subordinate is all to the good.

What About Terrorism?

What about the “#8220;terrorist threat”? Well, it exists, and it does the left no good to deny the fact. But viewing the threat in proper perspective reveals that it is nothing like the coordinated world conspiracy that is often conjured up. The Christmas Day attempted plane bombing, and the Fort Hood shooting, had little in common with the scale and coordination of the 9/11 atrocities or for that matter the London and Madrid bombings. They indicate instead the fragmentation of the “#8220;al-Qaeda franchise” into various local pieces; the role of self-recruited disoriented types like the Nigerian student and the U.S. army doctor, rather than trained operatives; and the opportunism of Osama bin Laden — if that’s really his voice — claming credit for attacks that weren’t his own.

It’s quite clear, given this understanding, that the threat of such attacks is in no way addressed by sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, or by waging a secret military intervention in Yemen’s three-way civil war, or stuffing new weapons systems into the Arab oil kingdoms. It’s precisely the expansion of U.S. military aggression — as examples from Somalia to Afghanistan have shown — that spreads the social collapse and the bitter resentment from which new al-Qaeda franchises or imitators grow.

Let’s also remember that the incidence of “#8220;international terrorism” on U.S. soil is considerably lower than that of violent assaults on abortion clinics and providers, hate crimes against gay and transgendered people, and racially motivated murders. But such questions are hardly ever posed in rational real-life terms — not by the governing Democrats, let alone by today’s teabagging, Koolaid-serving Republicans.

The “#8220;threat of extremist attacks on America” is also the pretext for a serious internal assault on basic democratic rights and legal safeguards. This includes the Obama administration’s declaring permanent detention without trial of 47 prisoners at the Guantanamo prison, which the new president had boldly promised would be closed by now; holding others beyond the reach of law at Bagram and other semi-secret facilities; and continuing the cynical and criminal siege of Gaza and the brutalities of the Israeli occupation in Palestine.

The release of close to 90 Yemeni prisoners, already checked and cleared to be freed from Guantanamo, has been suspended because of the fear (without any evidence) that some “#8220;might return to the battlefield.” So much for the promise of “#8220;restoring human rights and the rule of law.” Elsewhere in this issue Michael Smith’s article details the continuing destruction of basic rights and due process under the Obama administration; Kim Redigan’s account of what happened during the December Gaza Freedom March documents another particular monstrous consequence of the “#8220;terrorist” obsession.

All these policies, turning upside down the real threats to millions of people’s lives, don’t make Americans safer. They do embolden the militarist right wing, while demoralizing the Democrats’ popular base and especially Obama’s army of young supporters.

The Road to Rationality

The road to a rational politics is no easy one. It involves much more than simply refuting absurdities of global-warming denialism, “#8220;intelligent design” creationism or conspiracy theories about president Obama’s “#8220;missing” birth certificate. It’s a struggle to get people to think clearly about the reality of their own lives — and as an old saying about class consciousness and class analysis goes, about not only “#8220;what side of the line you’re on” but also “#8220;who’s there with you.”

Among the barriers to clear thinking are the massive funding of the ideological right wing and the overwhelming power of corporate influence, accompanied by the decline of organized labor. It cannot be a coincidence that the power demonstrated by corporate lobbies, and the fumbling impotence of the Democrats, emboldened the Supreme Court to virtually wipe out legislation restricting corporate political “#8220;attack ad” contributions. Those laws were written to curb “#8220;the political power of big labor” as well, but with the unions so weakened, who needed that anymore?

The Court’s ruling is neither “#8220;conservative” nor “#8220;constructionist” but a radically rightwing extension of corporate supremacy — while the right wing accuses liberals of “#8220;judicial activism” in attempting to expand the Constitutional protection of human rights! This capital-uber-alles destruction of a century of legal precedent is both an effect and a further cause of the destruction of substantive democracy in imperial America.

Many of the barriers that prevent people from having a clear view of the social crisis have been deliberately constructed. The corrosive inverted politics of fear flow from a kind of generalized insecurity that amalgamates the fear of joblessness, decay and decline — and yes, the fear of a Black president whose father was (nominally) Muslim — all of which contributes to what is mainly a white flight to irrational reactionary politics.

Will the Democrats ever decide to seriously fight for what they believe in? Will they ever believe in something that’s worth seriously fighting for? Hard to say — but we know for sure that everyone losing their jobs, their health care, their homes and their access to education can’t afford to wait around to find out.

Solutions will not come from the morass of the two capitalist parties. The challenge for socialists in the movements is to help build that understanding and face its implications. The barriers to consciousness begin to come down in the course of struggles — as on the campuses in California today. That’s why the March 4 mobilization and those to follow couldn’t be more timely.

ATC 145, March-April 2010