[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Christopher Ketcham, Host:
When the votes were tallied on the night of November 2, 2008, I was at a bar in Moab, Utah – the one rabid Democratic stronghold in a rabidly Republican state – to enjoy the hysteria as Barack Obama was summoned to lead the country out of the disaster of eight years of George W. Bush. People shook hands, hooted, clinked glasses, got drunk, raised fists, wept. The good liberals had elected a visionary Democrat to the presidency, who, blessed with a Democratic majority in Congress, would fashion “hope” and “change” into a palpable policy. I was told that in parts of Brooklyn, my hometown, voters ran through the streets banging pots and pans. The feeling was of religious jubilee – the new dispensation was upon us, and 2009 would mark the emancipation from the old rottenness. Corruption and fraud and deceit and war and oligarchy would be washed from the body politic. It was the beginning of the restoration of the republic.
That it was all a joke on the good liberals, those believers with the pots and pans, is by now axiomatic and yet somehow offensive for liberals to admit or discuss. If Obama’s presidency to date represents a betrayal of liberal expectations – or, more precisely, a measure of how much they had deluded themselves about his prospects – then the book we’re here to talk about, Roger Hodge’s The Mendacity of Hope, is also a betrayal of liberal expectation, in that thinking men on the political left are not to criticize the Dear Leader while the barbarian horde on the right clamor at the gates and howl for blood. Hodge, former editor of Harper’s magazine, makes the admirable leap to the place where thinking men should of course end up. “Right” and “left” in the US today, Hodge will tell you, are useless terms to describe our political economy, and in fact serve only to veil the dismal reality. The two parties, guised in the pretense of polar opposition, are effectively a single party operated as machines of corporate power, their players distinct from each other only in the degrees of hypocrisy when they pretend to represent anything other than the rarified institutions of wealth that invest to get them elected.
Hodge traces the genealogy of this single corporatist party, run by a minority of political investors, to the Third Way machinations of Bill Clinton, who effectively sold out the labor base of the Democratic Party in deference to big business. Thereafter, “both parties generally agreed on the necessity of dismantling or at least starving the welfare state, despite its overwhelming popularity with the general public, and appeasing predatory and financially irresponsible corporations as they neglected, exported, and otherwise dismembered the greatest industrial infrastructure in world history.” Both parties would be “marked by an almost unshakeable consensus on national security,” which amounted to unceasing expansion of the warfare state. Both parties would celebrate “the creative destruction of laissez-faire capitalism, with its tearing asunder of all tradition, its reduction of all relationships to the cash transaction.” To find a difference between Democrats and Republicans, then, is to embrace a hallucination – and it is this hallucination of difference, materialized for liberals in the figure of “the Archangel Obama,” that Hodge seeks to dispel.
Consider, first off, that the most offensive and horrific of the policies in the imperial consensus go unquestioned under Obama. “Torture continues,” writes Hodge. “The wars continue. Rendition and secret imprisonment continue. Blanket surveillance of the American people continues….State secrets, executive privilege, sovereign immunity and executive usurpation continue. Transparency and accountability proved to be figments of the candidate’s and the electorate’s hopeful imaginations.” We can conclude, where it comes to the question of “national security,” so-called, that the apostle who made himself the darling of liberals by mouthing the gospel of hope and change is effectively serving out the third term of George W. Bush. We might also conclude, writes Hodge, that Obama’s believers on the left, mouthing not a peep in protest, “were not truly outraged by the news from Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or Bagram….Perhaps they were just angry that Bush bragged about his crimes, that he had trampled on their precious humanitarian pieties, that he had offended the decorum of discreet hypocrisy.” Perhaps the left’s opposition to war and torture and kidnapping and assassination and the imperial presidency was mere opportunism in service of partisanship – and thus rendered itself as mere moral bankruptcy. We hear little from the mainstream left, for example, to decry Obama’s enthusiasm for US assassination policy, which involves most often the deployment of Predator drones for “targeting killings” (more such summary executions from the sky were ordered in 2009, under Obama, than during the entirety of the Bush administration). We heard no aghast reaction when the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions, warned the administration in 2009 “that its assassination program was probably illegal under international law” and that Obama’s “refusal to justify the program was untenable.” Lawyers for the State Department assured that the program conformed with “all applicable laws,” offering no explanation for why this might be so – except that the citizens should trust in the Archangel’s wisdom and judgment. “I did not see [the State Department] say anything that was different from the previous administration’s legal thinking,” concluded John Bellinger, a lawyer for the National Security Council under Bush.
Unaccountable power abroad in the form of military empire – itself driven, in no small part, by business interests that profit from conflict and war and death – has its natural corollary in corporate empire at home, where economic violence is exploited to expand the power of the unaccountable oligarchy. Thus, following the financial crisis of 2008, as Joseph Stiglitz observed, “the Treasury under both Bush and Obama used 9/15 – the day that Lehman [Brothers] collapsed – and the fears of another meltdown to extract as much as possible for the banks and the bankers that had brought the world to the brink of economic ruin.” Thus, legislation in Congress to limit the size and leverage of banks – the modicum of regulation to preserve an open playing field in the market – was shot down by the Democrats in whom Goldman Sachs and Wall Street had mightily invested. Thus, the vaunted health care “reform” was passed with the go-ahead of the drug and insurance industries, the hospital associations, the American Medical Association, the medical equipment manufacturers, basically every institution that had a stake in for-profit health care. The result, in Hodge’s assessment, was “a bailout of the health care industry that seeks to guarantee some 30 million additional customers for insurance companies” by coercing Americans to purchase a product “from a predatory for-profit business that adds no value to the economic transaction accompanying the activities of doctors and nurses.” Obamacare, though it offers picayune improvements, “merely postpones the kind of fundamental reforms that our broken health-care system demands” – a system that looks broken to most Americans but functions quite as it should for the health-care industry.
“The Mendacity of Hope” has for its purpose, however, a higher aim than the simple cataloguing of the degenerate condition to which the nation has sunk. Hodge believes, despite the lateness of the hour, that we still have a chance to topple the corporate empire. To do so would require “serious, sustained opposition, not respectful disagreement” – perhaps a third political party, a people’s party that sees the Democ-Repub duopoly for what it is. A people’s party that targets, say, “the 1 percent who control our corporate oligarchy.” We all know the one-percenters: they’re the class of top managers in finance and industry that took in 54 percent of all national income between 2001 and 2006. They’re the ones getting very rich, always richer, while the great majority of Americans work harder for less and less return. “What we require,” writes Hodge, “is precisely what our congressional barons and corporate overlords fear most: class warfare.” What we require “is that Americans take a stand on behalf of their selfish material interests and against those of the monopolies and transnational corporations that have captured our institutions of government.” What we require is to kill those fake persons known as corporations by ending the laws that provide them all the rights but none of the duties of flesh-and-blood persons. What we require, in short, is a revolution against the most powerful and entrenched and dangerous interests in the country. “If we shrug and say that the system of corrupt influence can never be overturned,” writes Hodge, “then we are truly doomed.”