At CounterPunch, Jason Hirthler identifies one of the most important dynamics in the modern political world: “For every social advance, an economic price paid.”
Hirthler examines the real-life aftermath of the social breakthroughs and advances represented by the social justice campaigns of Martin Luther King, the ending of apartheid under the aegis of Nelson Mandela, and racial symbolism in the election of the first black American president, Barack Obama. In every case, Hirthler notes, genuine social achievements were followed by a brutal and ruthless expansion and entrenchment of ‘neoliberal’ economics — that is, the aggrandisement of elite power and privilege.
One of the most glaring examples detailed by Hirthler is what happened after the genuinely astonishing and significant triumph of Mandela and the ANC: the share of South Africa’s wealth owned by whites has actually increased since the ending of the apartheid, thanks to the ANC’s betrayal of its own economic principles and its capitulation to the existing economic power structure.
This is the pattern that has been followed for decades: some social advances are accepted by the power structure — as long as the economic dominance of the ruling elite is not challenged. In Obama’s case, of course, this was a prerequisite, not a consequence, of his election. He would not have been allowed to be in the position of being elected president had he not clearly and continually signalled to the elite that he was in no way a threat to their power; in fact, as Hirthler notes, he went much further, and made it clear that he would be a more efficient and effective promoter of economic elite than cack-handed Republicans like George W. Bush, John McCain and Sarah Palin. And so it has proved. The nation’s oligarchs, corporations and financial sectors have devoured ever greater proportions of the nation’s wealth under Obama’s rule, while chronic unemployment and underemployment grinds on, the nation’s infrastructure rots, and the quality of life (and hopes for the future) of ordinary people continues to be degraded.
The case of King is somewhat different. Unlike Mandela, who acquiesced in the ANC sell-out to the elites (no doubt as a tactical decision; social freedom would be more likely to come sooner, and with less violence, than economic justice, which could remain a future goal), and Obama, who was a signed-up sell-out from the beginning, King was actually growing more radical as time went on, broadening his critique from racial oppression to the underlying, all-pervasive evils of militarism and elitist greed that shaped American foreign policy and its economic system. He was killed for this, of course, having already become increasingly marginalized by “serious” and “respectable” political opinion — precisely because of his increasing radicalism.
This dynamic is not confined to Hirthler’s three examples. It was also played out in the breakdown of the Soviet Union, where Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts at broad social reforms (and mild economic and political reforms) were met first with the backlash of an attempted coup by Soviet hardliners, and then, after the dissolution of the Union and the rise of Boris Yeltsin, by the imposition of “Shock Doctrine” economics. Here was the very apotheosis of neoliberalism — unrestrained, unopposed, relentless. The result, as we know, was the beggaring of the nation, an unprecedented plunge in life expectancy, the collapse of society and the ascendancy of a rapacious elite. (Plus the loss of many of the political and social freedoms that had been genuine gains from the otherwise traumatic regime change.)
And so on it goes. In our day, social progress is a tool used deliberately by our leaders to extract more gains for the elite at the expense of the general public. Vast amounts of energy and attention, especially potentially dangerous progressive and/or populist energy, is expended on social gains — on winning them, opposing them, maintaining them, trying to reverse them, etc. — while the overall system of domination rolls on unopposed. Obama benefits from this on the left, where his cynical nods to social progress — without actually doing anything very concrete about it with all the power he holds — mutes ‘progressive’ criticism of his truly abominable foreign and economic policies, which include state murder, Stasi-like surveillance, the exaltation of the rich and the degradation of everyone else. In the same way, George W. Bush gave lip service to the opposition to social progress, on abortion, for example, while never really doing anything about it, which fired up his own political base even as he, like Obama, advanced economic and foreign policies that degraded the lives of ordinary people — including his own fired-up followers. (Ironically, anti-abortion forces have made much greater strides during Obama’s tenure, as the NY Times reported on Friday.)
None of this is to gainsay the great worth of those social freedoms we have managed to advance over the past decades. It is a great thing, a wonderful thing, that American and South African blacks have more political freedom than they once had. It is a great thing, a wonder, that people who love people of the same sex are no longer subjected to quite so many of the legal restrictions and cultural calumny that they have long endured.
But the dynamic — social freedoms being ‘allowed’ or accepted only if the ever-increasing power of the economic elite is not threatened — still holds. Hirthler’s piece provides a good analysis of this phenomenon. Below are a few excerpts:
Almost as an antidote the onset of holiday cheer, the 2014 budget deal was released in December as a sort of deflationary tactic—lest the masses get their hopes too high … The 2014 budget strips away unemployment benefits, food stamp assistance, while doing nothing to shutter tax loopholes for the wealthy, all while proposed military cuts are essentially restored with some fantastic sleight of hand. This represents a continuation of the neoliberal austerity program implemented by bi-partisan consensus after the meltdown of 2008. And how nicely timed it was to follow on the heels of the global outpouring of feeling for the dearly departed Nelson Mandela.
…Alive, King was a provocation, and at the time of his assassination seemed to be turning toward racism’s companion grievances of poverty and war. How fortunate for the shadowy redoubts of wealth and militarism that he was slain. In death, his economic and foreign policy challenges were interred with his casket, and he was posthumously pedestaled for his commitments to civil rights alone—a cause that no right-thinking human could deny. Those companion causes, however, were bold and contentious critiques of power itself, and its capacities for self-enrichment. As such, the tidy janitors of historical revisionism swept them from sight.
How interesting that King died in 1968—just as he was shifting course, attacking the Vietnam War and the economics of poverty—and Lewis Powel’s rallying cry to the American Chamber of Commerce appeared in 1971, effectively launching the politicization of neoliberalism as a form of class war by elites against the disenfranchised, prioritizing the very evils—war and disenfranchisement—against which King fought.
…How curious that Barack Obama ascended to the throne of American power in 2008, just as the African-American populace found itself on the wrong end of one of the greatest transfer of wealth from one group to another—over half their wealth, mostly in the form of real estate, largely from black hands to white hands, from vulnerable families to faceless real estate trusts. One would think, by listening to the glistering orations of Mr. Obama, that he would have acted to instantly restore the wealth of an abused minority. But, of course, Obama would never have been handed the scepter of American power had he not first paid fealty to the embedded wealth of American society. Had he not assured real estate, finance, and insurance sectors he was “a free market guy”, capable of enabling corporatism like the best of Republicans. And that he could in fact do it better than his predecessor. Simply swap out the labels to suit the changing economic climate. Deregulation would be reconfigured as toothless regulation (with its overweening regard for the market). Privatization would be swabbed off as energy independence (using the American obsession with independence to undermine ecological mandates). Federal downsizing would be recast as deficit reduction (falsely conflating declining growth with social spending). But as he shouldered his way through the living rooms of silent power, he assured the assembled doyens of industry that it all came to the same. Thus, the downward spiral of blacks was simply accelerated, their claims denied, their houses foreclosed upon, their creditors enriched.
…How instructive that Nelson Mandela precipitated and oversaw the dismantling of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, but his ascendancy to power corresponded with a fatal shift in the economic fortunes of black South Africans, who would watch manufacturing, employment, and wages all decline during Mandela’s prime (see Patrick Bond’s expert summary). Even as whites watched their share of South African wealth rise, as white-held corporations evacuated their money from the newly free state, and as all the best land, mines, manufacturing, and finance remained in the hands of white power.
…What can we surmise from these three paradoxes of justice? Namely, that social gains seem to happen only when they don’t threaten established wealth, which is ensured by a clandestine decoupling of social issues from economics. As society steps forward socially, it steps backward economically.
…In each instance—following King’s assassination, and Obama and Mandela’s election—the social gains made by the majestic courage of millions were balanced by a backdoor betrayal of their economic interests. … All of this is disguised by the clever machinations of the budget office, which is able to artificially create the impression of general growth and prosperity by masking the negative metrics with astonishing stock market growth. Rather than investing in more productive fixed assets in the real economy, from which it is harder to extract one’s capital, investors prefer the easy mobility of financial speculation. Preferably through the creation of a derivatives-based real estate bubble (see Japan, the U.S., and Ireland for instructive examples in this regard). The numbers from this stupendous growth for the few are conflated with the figures of stupefying decline for the majority to produce a perverted per capita profile—one that characterizes a nation in free fall as one in flight.
And that process leaves us with a picture that oddly resembles modern South Africa. Enfranchised blacks in dire straits, with no political party representing their interests. A well-tanned imperial elite doing fabulously well. The government doing little to help the poor, but plenty to enable the rich. And when the complicit politicians and court journalists get a free minute, they step forward with poetic odes to another fallen champion of the underclass—even as they quietly celebrate the renewal of mass delusion and the injustice of the status quo.