© Robert Orwell Hand – (Reprinted with Permission) https://understandingthings.net/2019/11/01/understanding-freedom-part-v-freedom-and-politics-cont
Unlike the former Soviet Union, which allowed just one political party—the Communist Party—which was indistinguishable from its government, the United States possesses all of two political parties: the Republican and the Democratic parties. Like the Soviet Union’s Communist Party government, though, the U.S. government has made itself indistinguishable from its two-party system.
The government has done this by designing formidable structural obstacles to any candidate other than a Republican or a Democrat achieving high office (Independent, self-avowed democratic socialist, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders being among the few exceptions that prove the rule). And not coincidentally, both parties are funded, which is thus to say controlled, by the corporate interests of the capitalist establishment, which thereby retains its power to exercise ownership of the government itself, regardless of who is elected.
If the Republican Party is the advance guard for the expansion of the powers that be, the Democratic Party (with the notable exception of some progressive dissidents within its ranks) serves to maintain the status quo, tweaking it here and there in an effort to slow down the capitalist charge toward absolute freedom for the powerful/wealthy few. And the Democratic Party does this in the name of moderation. And, in so doing, it tries its best to marginalize as “unrealistic” the progressive voices in the party who are calling for freedom for all.
The self-professed saviors of “freedom and democracy,” both from the assaults of the conservative movement of “right-wing extremists”
and the progressive movement of “left-wing extremists,” are called “moderates,” or “centrists,” who claim to represent the “common-sense interests” of most Americans. By avoiding the “political extremes,” they intend to keep America in its present state of greatness as the bastion of “freedom” in the world, dismissing the conservative notion that America needs restoration to a golden age of lost greatness. (Despite her claims to being a “progressive,” political moderation was championed by Hillary Clinton in the last U.S. presidential election. Moderate Republicans used to exist until Reagan’s “Conservative Revolution” took over the Republican Party; now so-called Republican “moderates” are more conservative than even Reagan himself ever was.)
The moderate position on limiting the freedom of the powerful in the interest of equality is one of mild rhetorical support on some issues, but with the typical proviso that the time for significant steps in that direction is not yet, that it will come at some future point, and that the people must, above all, “be realistic” about what to expect in terms of actual change.
So, for example, in her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton eschewed the progressive call for “Medicare for All” on the grounds that it was unrealistic and could not be done in the political climate of that election.
Likewise, it became almost immediately clear after Barak Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008 that, despite his progressive-sounding campaign appeals to “hope and change,” he was a moderate who would leave the corporate and military powers that be relatively unmolested (which he demonstrated, for examples, by negotiating and clearing his plans for “Obamacare” with representatives of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries before presenting them to Congress and the public; by naming former Wall Street executives to his cabinet and failing to prosecute any Wall Street executives for the white-collar criminality of their central role in the financial crash of 2008; by continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and eventually, by proposing to spend billions of dollars on the renewal of the U.S. nuclear arsenal).
When it comes to freedom for all, the problem with political moderation is that, by trying to achieve only what is “realistically” possible at any given time, it must accept the reality that has been predetermined by the powerful: the way things are as organized by the powers that be. And moderates’ perpetual acceptance of the current reality has been bought and paid for by the powerful themselves: moderates are sometimes called “corporate Democrats” because their campaigns, just like Republicans’, are financed largely by corporate interests, whose interests these Democrats faithfully represent and dutifully serve.
And this reveals the truth about political centrism. Rather than representing an actual center in terms of most Americans’ interests, centrists represent a fictional center between the owning class (the powerful few) and the working class (the powerless many), in a supposed attempt to represent the interests of both. This is a fictional center not only because of the population differential—Where is the democratic center between “the 1%” and “the 99%”?—but also because the interests of the owning class—the highest possible profits via the lowest possible expenses for production, including wages, working conditions, resources, and taxes—are unalterably opposed to working-class interests, which include higher wages, better working conditions, and corporate and wealth taxes that would fund affordable healthcare and housing, and protection from injury and unemployment. Though political moderates pretend to stand for compromise between workers, whose votes they campaign for, and owners, whose money finances their campaigns, it should come as no surprise which constituency consistently carries the day.
While the role of conservatives is to aggressively (albeit with all manner of rhetorical sleights of hand) represent the powers that be, savagely conserving every ounce of corporate power and expanding it at every opportunity—all, of course, in the name of “freedom”—the role of moderates is to put on a show of mild resistance, to offer critiques and rebukes here or there (in the name of “equality”), but to unfailingly uphold the status quo.
The substantive differences between the Republican and Democratic parties primarily concern social and environmental issues (all of which are hugely important), such as climate change, choice regarding abortion, LGBTQ rights. In as much as some among the powerful few share these values and concerns, however, moderates can act accordingly without damaging the system itself. Ultimately, moderates’ efforts typically amount to a kind of rearguard action, at best slowing the advance of the powerful, absent any substantive progress toward freedom for all.
As of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, Democrats had lost the Presidency, both houses of Congress and most governorships (despite the fact that, according to polls, most Americans agree with them on social and environmental issues). And Democrats have lost because
fewer and fewer Americans still agree with the sentiment that “America
is great.” The status quo that moderates uphold and represent is not working socioeconomically for an increasing number of Americans who, as a result, see no point in voting. As progressive filmmaker Michael Moore points out, the largest political party in the U.S. is the party of non-voters (100 million), outnumbering those who voted in 2016 for the Democratic candidate (63 million) or the Republican candidate (60 million, though he won via electoral-college votes). Even Trump’s dangerously moronic presidency (which has energized the darker impulses toward racism and sexism and nativism of Trump supporters) is unlikely, in itself, to be an antidote (apart from a progressive resurgence within the party) to the gradual collapse of the limply ineffectual moderation of the Democratic party.
In the wake of the 1960s, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, both conservative and moderate (called “liberal” when they become even mildly assertive in their calls for socioeconomic reform) forces agreed that, during the 1960s, America had been the victim of an “excess of democracy” (see the 1975 Trilateral Commission report, The Crisis of Democracy: On the Governability of Democracies). Too much people-power—i.e., an excess of freedom for any but the powerful—had threatened the security and sanctity of the status quo, challenging the prerogative of the powers that be to determine the way things are. The people were actually demanding an end to war and segregation and pollution and other evils that contributed significantly to the wealth—and, therefore, the power—of the American owning/ruling class. The result was the hardening of the Republican party into a no-holds-barred conservative assault on democracy (i.e., on freedom for all) and the softening of the Democratic party even further into the acquiescence of moderation.
In response to a political conservatism that aggressively advances the interests of the powers that be and a political moderation that passively acquiesces to those interests, a political progressivism has emerged that, at its best, seeks to upend the powers that be and actively redistribute their power to the people. (The political label “progressive” has evolved over the decades and is not currently uncontested as to who can legitimately wear it. I am here using “progressive” to identify those who actively—not merely rhetorically—promote the ideal, and demand progress toward the goal, of freedom for all by means of substantive equality: a redistribution of power to and among the people; by this definition, progressives can be found outside of and within [though marginalized by] the Democratic Party, while being demonized as “socialists” and “left-wing extremists” by the Republican Party.)
If progressivism is movement toward the goal of freedom for all, the progressive idea is neither that America should be returned to an illusory former greatness nor that America is currently great but, instead, that America can and should make continual progress toward that kind of greatness. This idea of progressivism is that the degree of national greatness corresponds to the degree of power that has been distributed among—and, therefore, the degree of freedom enjoyed by—the people of the nation.
Progress, in this sense, is defined not in market or military terms but in human terms: in terms of the freedom—the measure of substantive power—accessible to all members of society (regardless of whatever may differentiate them from one another). And from a progressive and
evidence-based viewpoint, there is nothing inconsistent with this definition of progress and a growing economy that benefits all members of society. (And it should be self-evident by now that an increasingly unregulated capitalist economy decidedly does not benefit a growing majority of Americans.)
A significant difference between this kind of political progressivism and both political conservatism and political moderation is that progressive leaders do not seek power for themselves and do not pretend that they will use their power for the benefit of the people. Instead, political progressivism consists of the active redistribution of power to the people.
For moderate (like conservative) politicians, Americans are properly voters, taxpayers, and consumers, but the idea of Americans as active citizens scares the hell out of them. Any kind of activism that upsets the political status quo is undesirable, which explains why Barack Obama, after mobilizing millions of progressive-leaning Americans for his initial presidential election campaign, allowed his unprecedently powerful grassroots organization to unravel and relied on politics as usual to advance his moderate agenda. Obama and his handlers presumably realized that his grassroots supporters would demand a far greater degree of progressivism than he was prepared to embrace.
Since the key to maintaining the status quo is, above all, secrecy (typically under the guise of “national security,” and reinforced by a steady flow of government-media distraction and disinformation), political progressivism, unlike its conservative and moderate counterparts, requires providing true and clear information to the public regarding what the U.S. government is up to, both domestically and internationally. (The nearly opposite reactions of progressives, on one hand, and their moderate and conservative counterparts, on the other, to whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden—both of whom boldly and bravely revealed to the public the unscrupulous lengths to which the U.S. government has gone to uphold and expand the powers that be—exposed the fervent desire of both moderates and conservatives to keep the U.S. public in the dark.) To be empowered, the public must know what its government is doing because knowledge is power: progress toward freedom for all requires as many Americans as possible to understand how power works, specifically, the ways in which the powers that be are shaping the way things are, as well as to understand the power that is, potentially at least, at everyday Americans’ disposal to intervene.
Intervention is necessary because progress towards democracy—towards the equality of freedom for all—represents a disruption of the way things are, an active challenge to the powers that be. The acid test of all so-called “progressive” leaders is their attitude toward progressive activism on the part of everyday people: not just reacting favorably to it but actively encouraging and even organizing it.
In this regard, an historically-based, progressive understanding of how to alter power relations begins (as progressive activist, recording artist and filmmaker Boots Riley points out) with the organization of labor for the purpose of work stoppages, which are the most effective exercise of people-power in a capitalist society. Only as their profit margins are threatened will the powerful be motivated to treat workers as people with human and civil rights. So-called “progressives” who fear hitting the powerful where it hurts most show their true moderate colors.
Progress requires “rocking the boat,” and while “the boat” is fully fortified and continually reinforced, it carries only the powerful few compared to the potentially powerful many.
Perhaps the greatest test of political leaders’ progressivism is where they stand—and the volume at which they are willing to state it—on the subject of U.S. imperialism and its most egregious international manifestation: endless war. (The fact that a significant majority of Democrats signed on to Trump’s “national defense” [read military-industrial complex] budget, the biggest increase in military spending in U.S. history—700 to 800 billion dollars, more than the totals spent on their militaries by the next eight or nine nations combined—betrays any claim the Democratic Party as a whole may make to meaningful progressivism.)
When “progressives” are asked how they expect to pay for social programs like Medicare for All and free college education, and they don’t point out that these programs would cost a fraction of what the U.S. spends on its military budget every year—to finance its 800-plus military bases across the globe; its foreign aid programs (mostly given to third-world dictatorships so they can purchase arms from, and further enrich, U.S. weapons manufacturers); its military presence throughout the Middle East and, increasingly, in Africa and other parts of the world; the maintenance and expansion of its nuclear arsenal; and the other necessities of empire—then they (these so-called “progressives”) flirt with the acquiescence of moderation. (Socialist thinkers have long noted the historical inseparability of capitalism, militarism and imperialism, which is why those thinkers have been relegated to the margins of public discourse in America.) Apart from a plain-spoken critique of U.S. militarism, no political leader can lay persuasive claim to being progressive.
A question seldom addressed by even left-leaning politicians and commentators is whether or not democracy, which by definition distributes power to the powerless many, can coexist with capitalism, which by definition concentrates power in the hands of the powerful few. Some wish to reverse the conservative deconstruction of New Deal and Great Society programs by not only restoring but also broadening the scope of government provisions and protections for workers and consumers to include women, as well as non-white minorities (who, having largely been excluded from the original New Deal, will soon, collectively, comprise the majority of the U.S. population). They otherwise wish to restore the regulations and taxes on corporations that saved capitalism from itself (saving capitalism via the New Deal being FDR’s self-avowed proudest achievement) by making the economic (largely white) middle-class a reality in mid-20th-century America. Their belief is that, by so doing, capitalism and democracy can, even more successfully and inclusively than in the past, coexist in the U.S.
While it is relatively true that capitalism and democracy (in however limited a form) did co-exist from the 1930s into the 1970s, the powers that be laid plans for and set about the deconstruction of “the welfare state” within a few years after the inception of the New Deal, and finally, with the Reagan Revolution, enacted the gradual restoration of deregulated capitalism (in the interest of a freedom of the powerful now called “neo-liberalism”). And this has finally resulted in the largest income inequality since before the Great Depression and in the onslaught of ever-increasing climate-change disasters all over the world. And, even after the capitalist collapse of 2008, leaving the corporate powers that be more powerful than ever.
The question, then, is whether or not capitalism can be sufficiently reformed on an ongoing basis, even in the interest of its own survival, given its vast concentration of power (along with the perennial willingness of so many political leaders to sell themselves to corporate interests). The brilliant early 20thcentury German socialist Rosa Luxemburg addressed this question for the progressives of her day in terms of the choice between reformation and revolution, her view being that legitimate reform can only be a means to the end of a socialist revolution; by themselves, liberal reforms of capitalism will always be met with capitalist adjustments and maneuvers that, sooner or later, mitigate and neuter those reforms. (The relative brevity of the New-Deal and Great-Society reforms in the U.S. support her argument.)
At the same time, the uncanny survive-ability of capitalism that enables it to react to the economic crises that it incessantly creates by morphing into new shapes and sizes as technology advances, seems to have been a feature of capitalism that, as progressive economist and journalist Paul Mason observes, even its arch-critic Karl Marx didn’t foresee. Nevertheless, according to some, a strictly-regulated capitalism that limits the power of the owning class while expanding the power of the working class (both non-white and white, female and male) is the most and best that can be hoped for.
On the other hand, a merely reformist approach may not have enough of a future to sufficiently mitigate the climate-exploding effects of capitalism. More optimistically, why limit what kind of post-capitalist future may be possible in the wake of a progressivism that intervenes consistently and effectively in the interest of progress toward the American ideal of freedom for all?
Progressive intervention, at the same time, must as a rule be nonviolent, as Martin Luther King, Jr., understood and proclaimed. Violence, while it may sometimes be a necessary evil for purposes of self-defense, is a divisive force that, more often than not, replaces one concentration of power with another and dehumanizes not only its victims but also those who perpetrate it. It is typically ineffective in accomplishing any progressive purpose, but whatever argument may be made for its occasional necessity does not turn it from an evil into a good. As Dr. King believed, progress towards freedom for all assumes that all be included, at least ideally, in that progress.
The point is that the powers that be always consist of the few; freedom for all, by definition, can only be realized as a greater and greater percentage of all see it to be in their interest to intervene. And nothing frightens the powerful few more than the unity of the powerless many because unity is essential to power.
(The support of American Evangelicalism and other forms of religious fundamentalism for U.S. militarism—and for Israeli militarism and its militant opposition to the freedom and equality of Israel’s displaced Palestinian residents—and for the police violence regularly visited upon Americans of color, betrays the religious right’s estrangement from the New Testament Jesus it claims to serve. As does its abiding belief that American wealth and power—the “freedom” of the powerful of America to rule the world—are a sign of the Christian God’s blessing [allegedly in danger of being withdrawn because of the freedom of American women and LGBTQ Americans to choose what they do with their own bodies]. The power-hungry religious right’s eagerness to use the coercive power of the state to advance its moral and religious agenda has long since exposed its contempt for freedom for all, revealing its bankruptcy regarding any persuasive power to influence American society as a whole.)
Political conservatism, with the acquiescence of political moderation, has employed the tried-and-true strategy of dividing and conquering the many (“the 99%”) by means of the false gods of racism, sexism, and nationalism: the gods of whiteness (demanding worshipful subservience from people of color), of maleness (demanding worshipful subservience from females), and of Americanness (demanding worshipful subservience from the rest of the world).
Progressivism, conversely, seeks to unite the many by reminding all of their common humanity and by exposing toxic fictions like white supremacy, male superiority, and American exceptionalism.
Being human requires the freedom to be, which includes the freedoms to speak and to think and to choose and to act according to one’s own beliefs, with respect for the freedom of all other human beings to do the same. Without respect for the freedom—the humanity—of all others, “freedom” becomes nothing but a mindless (or mindful) power-grab. The result is that freedom disappears into a fog of greed and lust and hate, and the dark side of pride.
The emergence of freedom as not only the birthright but also the lived experience of all human beings depends on a national and international unity that grows out of a soil that lies deeper in the human soul than politics or economics can reach.
(Next: Understanding Freedom: Freedom and the Human Spirit)