In opposing Obamacare, the radical-populist right exposes its own twisted ideology
The Guardian, Friday 11 October 2013
A Tea Party rally against the Affordable Care Act in Washington, DC last month. 'An opinion poll [in] 2012 showed that a majority of Americans, while opposing Obamacare, strongly support most of its provisions.' Photograph: UPI /Landov / Barcroft Media
In April 2009 I was resting in a hotel room in Syracuse, hopping between two channels: a PBS documentary on Pete Seeger, the great American country singer of the left; and a Fox News report on the anti-tax Tea Party, with a country singer performing a populist song about how Washington is taxing hard-working ordinary people to finance the Wall Street financiers. There was a weird similarity between the two singers: both were articulating an anti-establishment, populist complaint against the exploitative rich and their state; both were calling for radical measures, including civil disobedience.
It was another painful reminder that today's radical-populist right reminds us of the old radical-populist left (are today's Christian survivalist-fundamentalist groups with their half-illegal status not organised like Black Panthers back in the 1960s?). It is a masterful ideological manipulation: the Tea Party agenda is fundamentally irrational in that it wants to protect the interests of hardworking ordinary people by privileging the "exploitative rich", thus literally countering their own interests.
This twisted ideology is also behind the current federal government shutdown in the US. An opinion poll at the end of June 2012 showed that a majority of Americans, while opposing Obamacare, strongly support most of its provisions. Here we encounter Tea Party ideology at its purest: the majority wants to have its ideological cake and eat the real baking. They want the real benefits of healthcare reform, while rejecting its ideological form, which they perceive as a threat to the "freedom of choice". They reject the concept of fruit, but they want apples, plums and strawberries.
Some of us remember the infamous communist tirades against bourgeois "formal" freedom. Ridiculous as these arguments were, there is some truth in the distinction between "formal" and "actual" freedom. A manager in a company in crisis has the "freedom" to fire workers, but not the freedom to change the situation that imposes on him this choice. We see it in the US healthcare debate, too: Obamacare would deliver many people from the dubious "freedom" to worry about who will cover their illness.
Freedom of choice is something that only functions if a complex network of legal, educational, ethical, economic and other conditions exists – the constraints that form the invisible underpinning to the exercise of our freedom. This is why, as an antidote to the populist rightwing ideology of choice, countries such as Norway should be held up as a model: although all main agents respect a basic social agreement and large social projects are enacted in solidarity, the economy is thriving (and not only because of the oil reserves), flatly contradicting the common wisdom that such a society should be stagnating.
Not many people know – and even fewer appreciate the irony of the fact – that Frank Sinatra's iconic song My Way – which is supposed to epitomise the American individualist attitude – is in fact a version of the French song Comme d'Habitude, which means "as usual, as is customary". It is all too easy to see this as yet another example of the opposition between sterile French manners and American inventiveness. But what if this is a phoney opposition? What if, in order to be able to do it my way, I have to rely on things going on comme d'habitude? A lot of things have to be regulated if we are to enjoy our non-regulated freedom.
One often hears that the US shutdown is the result of partisan bickering, that politicians should learn to rise above it and find bipartisan solutions for the good of the nation. Not only the Tea Party, but also Barack Obama is accused of dividing the American people instead of bringing them together. But what if this, precisely, is what is good about Obama? In situations of deep crisis, an authentic division is urgently needed: a division between those who want to drag on within the old parameters and those who are aware of the need for radical change. This, not opportunistic compromise, is the only path to true unity.
One of the weird consequences of the 2008 financial meltdown and the measures taken to counteract it (enormous sums of money to help banks) was the revival of the work of Ayn Rand, the closest one can get to an ideologist of the "greed is good" radical capitalism. The sales of her opus Atlas Shrugged exploded. According to some reports, there are already signs that the scenario described in Atlas Shrugged – the creative capitalists themselves going on strike – is coming to pass in the form of a populist right. However, this misreads the situation: what is effectively taking place today is almost the exact opposite. Most of the bailout money is going precisely to the Randian "titans", the bankers who failed in their "creative" schemes and thereby brought about the financial meltdown. It is not the "creative geniuses" who are now helping ordinary people, it is the ordinary people who are helping the failed "creative geniuses".
John Galt, the central character in Atlas Shrugged, is not named until near the end of the novel. Before his identity is revealed, the question is repeatedly asked, "Who is John Galt". Now we know precisely who he is: John Galt is the idiot responsible for the 2008 financial meltdown, and for the ongoing federal government shutdown in the US.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Slavoj Žižek - Who Is Responsible for the US Shutdown? The Same Idiots Responsible for the 2008 Meltdown
Slavoj Žižek is often very entertaining. In this recent op-ed for the UK's The Guardian, Žižek seems to think he has discovered a hornets next, so of course he gives it a good swift kick. On the other hand, anyone who can find a cogent argument to pin this current financial mess on Ayn Rand is cool with me.