My concerns going forward have more to do with the larger trends than with individual policies. And the larger trends in the political sphere, when they move us forward, are almost always dependent on major discontinuities that force some kind of collective response that deflect a society from its normal course. Without a crisis or trauma, all we can realistically expect is politics as usual.
And politics as usual in every era is pretty basic: There are always factions which have acquired power and wealth that will use that power and wealth to game the system to insure that they can maintain their power and wealth. And they succeed unless they are opposed by other factions that have the power to check them. This is just fundamental to any social analysis in just about every society. American society, although it began in a collective action against the British imperial oligarchy, has become one of the most egregious examples of the iron law of oligarchy at work, and unless some kind of collective action emerges soon to check this politics-as-usual trend, it will continue to morph American society into the imperial oligarchy it repudiated in its origins.
The idea that people who have power seek to consolidate it is a basic assumption that undergirds everything I write about politics in this blog. To me it's so obvious, I don't even know how to defend it. It's on the level defending the assertions that it gets cold in winter and hot in summer. And yet everything one reads in the mainstream press or in most of the blogosphere assumes that it's not the central problem. Libertarians seem to care, but they fear the threat of left oligarchies so much that they are blind to the threat from the oligarchical right, which is much more serious. And they have unwittingly abetted its agenda every time they vote Republican. It's as if to talk about how power really works in this society is a taboo subject. And yet unless we talk about it, how does anything really change? Do we think that changing presidents or parties deeply affects the underlying power structure? It cannot happen unless there's a crisis that forces the power structure to adjust.
The most important issue right now is how to get the government to do what is in the broader public's interest rather than in the interests of elites enmeshed in our imperial militaristic system. Is it not now clear to everyone that our invading Iraq had nothing to do with the broader interests of the American public and everything to do with the interests of this narrow elite? Is it not clear that even if 90% of Americans opposed the war in the polls, it wouldn't have made a difference? The decision had been made, and public be damned. Do we really think that Obama has the power to take this elite on and to defang it, even if he wanted to?
We could argue that it's already too late, but it's an open question (to me at least) whether things have rigidified to a degree that we are locked in. One factor that might paradoxically work against the power elite's continued consolidation of its power and wealth lies in its having overreached and in doing so quite possibly having caused the collapse of the system that kept the broader population anesthetized. As long as most people are comfortable, they don't care what elites at the top of the pyramid are doing, and those elites have been relatively free to lay an infrastructure that secures their interests in the future. And anybody paying attention who cares about preserving American democracy has become deeply alarmed in observing their successes in doing so.
That's precisely what we've seen during the Bush years, and despite its blatancy, nobody seems to have minded that much. Concern about aggregation of wealth into the hands of the top five percent is too abstract an issue, and until such trends create effects that cause significant numbers of people to feel some pain, nothing will happen. No pressure will brought upon our politicians, and they will continue to care about what they have always mostly cared about--their own careers and promoting their own self interest. Challenging the real underlying power structure is not a good career move.
But if the system is indeed in a kind of slow-motion collapse, then it will soon enough get personal for a broad swath of Americans, who will become aroused, and then almost anything can happen. When times are relatively prosperous, the power elite doesn't have to use violence to protect its interests. It can just promote any kind of truthy nonsense to neutralize opposition. It's easy to promote intellectual confusion and manipulate public opinion in people who aren't well informed and who don't care to be. But when people get desperate and angry, their minds become concentrated and critical, and they won't stand for the kind of b.s. that's been foisted on them for years now. And we can be sure that the kind of violence now used on urban blacks and suspected Muslim terrorists will be more broadly applied to anyone who presents himself as a malcontent threatening the good order of our society.
I think there are two broad scenarios about what might happen, and each depends on whether we've locked into an oligarchical system during these past thirty years, or whether the system still has some flexibility. If, in fact, we are locked in, the oligarchical faction will fight tooth and nail to prevent any attempts at redistribution downward. They will offer all kinds of lofty, principled arguments to defend their position, but it all boils down to "It's ours, and we won't give it up." They know they've co-opted enough Democrats to prevent any kind of serious change from happening. And if people hurt by this economic collapse start acting up, these elites will use the power of the State to suppress any organized efforts to redress the balance. This will not be about intellectual arguments; it's about power and factions using their power to do everything they can to protect their interests, and they are not going to play nice.
I think it's clear that the infrastructure for violent suppression of dissent has been put in place, but it's not clear to me yet whether there is enough consolidation of power at the top to use it without opposition from other factions in the country's elite. This is why it matters that McCain didn't get elected. Whatever he might have been in 2000, it became clear in the last year or so that he was completely beholden to these power factions on the oligarchical right, and Republican Libertarianism will be used as the intellectual justification to defend this elite faction's interests. It may turn out that Obama's election will not make a difference, but with him in the White House and a Democratic congress, there's at least a chance that the all-but-dead New Deal compromise mentality might be revived as a way of dealing with a serious crisis. But it's the crisis that will force change, not politicians with an agenda, because the crisis is the only thing that will wake people up enough to organize to pressure politicians who will not act unless forced to.
This movie is going to be very interesting as it plays out, but it should be clear to every sane person that nobody, even the president of the U.S., has a free hand here. He can do only what it is politically possible to do, and that will be determined by where he's feeling the most pressure. And the most pressure comes from where there is the most power, and at this juncture, there simply isn't an aroused, organized faction that represents the interests of the broad public that has power enough to oppose the very powerful factions promoting oligarchy. They might be there in some incipient stage, but they are not players on the field at this point.
I don't expect Obama to be able to create anything ex nihilo. He will have to be reactive, meaning that he has to play the cards he's dealt, and a 1930s type trauma could actually give him a strong hand to play. It will help him to effect this kind of readjustment in the same way that 9/11 was a trauma exploited by the Neocons to move the country into war with Iraq.
If the country quickly recovers from this economic trauma, my guess is that the Obama administration will be a lot like Clinton's--characterized by partisan bickering and stalemate that will mostly favor the continued behind-the-scenes consolidation of power by the nation's power elites. For without a sense of urgency, nothing gets done in the interests of the broader public because it isn't organized to exert enough pressure to make something happen. The broad electorate becomes disgusted with politics and tunes out. And the oligarchs are back in the business of quietly consolidating their power and wealth. Signing statements, warrantless wiretaps, suspension of habeas corpus, torture have all been legitimated as tools the State can use to protect its interests, but ultimately these are tools the oligarchs will use to suppress those who threaten their interests.
A repressive oligarchy is not our immediate future, but it is our future in the long run, because this is the way it is in every society unless its oligarchical factions are kept in check. So unless a dramatic shift in the direction of our politics is effected, we will continue down this regressive course begun during the Reagan era. The agenda of the power elites was to form a coalition on the backs of social conservatives but which was primarily concerned to dismantle the New Deal compromise and return the country to the buccaneering days of the Robber Barons. They have been largely successful, and as the business with Enron, MCI Worldcom, and now the collapse of the financial markets, we see the results that anybody with a little common sense and historical memory would have predicted. But the elites get what the elites want, unless there's someone to oppose them. And that will continue to be true until the end of time.
We'll see if an Obama administration can shift the country away from the significant momentum that moves it towards an inevitable repressive oligarchy. I still have hope that he can, but it is by no means a sure thing. It is nevertheless important for as many people as possible to know what the stakes are.