No to austerity and centrism

E.J. Dionne’s column in the Washington Post today critically compares moderation with centrism. While moderation seeks to achieve a balance between the needs of business and the duties of government, he says, centrism charts a middle ground between political positions. However, the extreme rightward turn of the Republican party has made centrists “fear saying outright that by any past standards — or by the standards of any other democracy — the views of this new right wing are very, very extreme and entirely impractical.

“Centrists worry that saying this might make them look ‘leftist’ or ‘partisan.’ Instead, the center bends. It concocts deficit plans that include too little new tax revenue. It accepts cuts in programs that would have seemed radical and draconian even a couple of years ago. It pretends this crisis is caused equally by conservatives and liberals when it is perfectly clear that there would be no crisis at all if the right hadn’t glommed onto the debt ceiling as the (totally inappropriate) vehicle for its anti-government dreams. …”

It couldn’t be clearer that this is a critique of Obama. But Dionne hedges it by describing him as a moderate who has lost his way, and blames his political advisers. “Obama’s advisers are said to be obsessed with the political center, but such a focus leads to a reactive politics that won’t motivate the hope crowd that elected him in the first place. Neither will it alter a discourse whose terms were set during most of this debt fight by the right.”

But it’s not just Obama, it’s the whole Democratic leadership. Talking Points Memo noted a statement made by Pelosi on Monday night which made the same argument. “If you look closely at Pelosi’s austerity-lauding you’ll see the types of pressures being brought to bear. Her full phrase was: ‘It is clear we must enter an age of austerity; to reduce the deficit through shared sacrifice.’ The last two words are important: ‘shared sacrifice.’ They were echoed in President Obama’s Monday night address when he suggested raising taxes on the rich, asking ‘millionaires and billionaires… to share in the sacrifice everyone else has to make.’ … However, this tax-the-rich suggestion has gone nowhere in the subsequent debate. Indeed, of the bills lined up in the House and Senate right now, neither of them goes anywhere near a tax increase. The language of austerity has so far benefited the Republican position, which is all cuts and no taxes.”

The bills being considered in Congress and the Senate are virtually identical in their austerity cuts: the only difference is that the Republican bill calls for a two-stage debt increase which requires another vote on the limit in six months time.  TPM explains: “There are two reasons for this Rube Goldberg approach. One is simply to embarrass the President and force Democrats to take votes that can be turned into 30-second ads this election season. The other, though, is to achieve deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid under the threat of default.”

The Democrats are in the process of making themselves the instrument of the corporate drive to cut welfare spending, something billionaire right-wingers have been advocating since Reagan but which up till now has been regarded as unthinkable. The Democratic leadership is making a grave strategical error in taking this centrist position so as to appeal to independent voters; as cuts begin to bite, the independents will swing rapidly to oppose them.

Whatever form of austerity bill passes, the losers will be the U.S. public. Up until now, they have not been heard from. But, if Social Security and Medicare is cut, the social contract will be broken: people’s lives will be disrupted, they will no longer be able to maintain the balancing act necessary to sustain their situation, and they will inevitably get drawn into political struggle.

The social contract is both an agreement between the government and the governed about their rights and responsibilities, and a recognition of the mutual dependence of generations. As Lyndon Johnson said to Bill Moyers in 1965 when discussing how to persuade Congress to extend Social Security and launch Medicare, “We’ve just got to say that, by God, you can’t treat grandma this way. She’s entitled to it and we promised it to her.”

In the case of Social Security, the legitimacy of the social system was based on an implied understanding that if you worked hard, paid your mortgage and taxes, the state would provide an assurance of at least a minimum base of security in old age. This understanding reflected a post Second World War equilibrium between corporations and labor, where employers offered comparatively high wages to build up domestic spending and fund their future profits in exchange for labor never questioning fundamental management decisions. However, this agreement eventually allowed corporations to relocate production to low-wage and non-union locations so that U.S. workers became socially dispensable.

A classic study of workers’ attitudes notes how an individualistic ideology leads many workers to blame themselves for their situation even though they know the system is stacked against them. “To speak of American workers as having been ‘bought off’ by the system or adopting the same conservative values as middle-class suburban managers and professionals is to miss all the complexity of their silence and to have no way of accounting for the intensity of pent-up feeling that pours out when working people do challenge higher authority.” [Sennett and Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class, 1991, qtd in Domhoff, Who Rules America, 5th Ed., New York, 2006:114]

One indication of what the release of this pent-up feeling might look like is given by Wisconsin. What struck veteran advocate for social programs Frances Fox Piven about the protests was the “extraordinary solidarity” between different groups of workers, between young and old, teachers and school students. It drew in college students, trade unionists, homeless advocates, and many others in a quietly determined opposition to Walker’s attacks on state workers’ collective bargaining rights. As recall elections loom large, right-wing groups are pouring in  money to try to influence the vote. But what will decide the outcome is active participation by politically-committed citizens, and that is what is happening there (although unreported in the national media).

Unlike Europe where workers tend to be ideologically tied to Social Democracy, and see only conservatives as the alternative, Americans are more pragmatic about their allegiance. There is the strong possibility of offering an alternative to conservative Democrats who acquiesce to austerity programs through the 2012 election process. If the right can transform the Republican party through selecting their candidates in the primaries, then the left can transform the Democrats. Wisconsin Clubs in the Democratic Party which support candidates committed to reversing Republican policies can change the political landscape considerably.


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Filed under health care, marxism, Obama, political analysis, populism, state unions, Tea Party movement, US policy, Wisconsin

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