By George Gregoriou
Politics seem hopeless. Doesn’t it? You ask “what has the government done for me, that I have not done myself?” Very little. You cannot give the politicians much credit, for their policies at home, in Greece, or Cyprus. Every time we get involved in the political process we get burned. It is not just the voting. Voting is not real participation. Elections requires billions of dollars and sound-bites, which we do not have. Voting is a symptom of powerlessness. The Novocain, to use Malcom X’s words. Let us not go there. Voting has a similar soothing effect. We feel we are doing our patriotic thing, as citizens. But, the results seem to make no difference, whether Republicans or Democrat control the White House or Congress. We are important because we vote. It is the feeling that changes, not the economic and social reality. It’ s like thunder without rain, at a cost of over $1 billion, to choose between two evils, or three?
The media gets us all psyched up, with sound-bites. We get angry with the one we dislike, hopeful with the one we like. This 4th of July oratory is like a carnival. When it is over, it is back to routine. This cycle, optimism followed by pessimism, seems forever. Is this cynicism and apathy due to the nature of human beings or politics? If people are greedy why ½ of the eligible voters do not even bother to vote? It seems more perplexing, trying to understand those who do vote. I can understand why people do not vote. A little old English lady put it this way: “Oh no, I do not vote. It encourages them to do so.”
This apathy and cynicism have nothing to do with human nature, used frequently as a copout to avoid thinking. When babies are born, do they want to wave a flag, play the national anthem, ask for their stocks and real estate, or the English or Greek language? If humans were as selfish and greedy, as they are reputed to be, why don’t they get involved in politics? How else could they get something? The wealthy are very involved in politics. They get what they want, thanks to their money and power. The rest of us have to do with little.
How does human nature fit into this? The US has one of the highest in infant mortality and divorce rates, a high level of illiteracy, high unemployment and imprisonment of young blacks, low scores in math, science, reading, writing, illiteracy, use of drugs, etc. Are these social indicators related to human nature, as Ronald Reagan proclaimed more than once: “Criminals are born” that way. That’s it. In other words, the criminal’s behavior is connected to his/her DNA. It is not caused by poverty, drugs, alcohol, racism, poor nutrition, stressful life. Those Canadians or Europeans who are doing better on most of these social indicators, do they have a superior DNA? Our DNA must be going haywire, if one of the fast growing industries in the US is the prison-industrial complex.
We are the wealthiest power on this planet, with the number one economy in the world. Yet, sectors of the population live below third world standards. 80% of the American people are one paycheck away from bankruptcy, 46 million are without health insurance, millions of children are born in poverty, their growth stunted by malnutrition, illiteracy, and drugs. The White House is cutting back on education for needy, on health benefits (including the national breast and cervical cancer early detection program), on benefits for veterans, on seniors. Their option: military service, and Iraq.
The only funding that gets immediate attention at the Bush White House is defense and Homeland Security. The White House is spending $40 billion a month on the war. It proposed to raise the national debt ceiling to $9 trillion dollars, without raising taxes. It is now $8 trillion, with 80% of every dollar the government is paying, it is the interest on the loans the government borrowed on our behalf. Bush is not about to raise taxes on the rich, after he gave them a $l.3 trillion in tax cut, to become permanent. The funding on education, Medicaid, veteran¹s benefits, and the environment is scheduled to be cut, to save money. If these trends continue, will the US economy be bankrupt? Maybe not. Even a decomposing society can be kept together by other means, the police, the military, guns, and fear.
These questions are related to the way we think, out institutional structures, and to the poverty of our politics, the themes in this series. I do not have all the answers, and whatever I say is not carved in stone. Ruthless criticism is welcome. But, to put it bluntly, this critique is over the relationship between capitalism and democracy, the few and the many.
The root causes did not happen yesterday. The US was founded on the principles of a market economy. This new religion dominated throughout the history of the US, from the days when Columbus set foot on this continent. A great power was created in the last 200 years, at what price and in whose benefit?
The colonizing of the New World took place when the market ideology was on the ascendancy, over feudalism. Historians agree that feudalism, in existence for 800-900 years, was history by 1400, certainly by 1600, a period of transition. The market dogma, reflected in Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees (1714) and Adam Smith¹s The Wealth of Nations (1776) grew in hot-house fashion in Europe and the New World. It was imported in the New World by the settlers/colonizers. Booze, disease, and gunpowder took care of the natives. This ideology was inscribed as the official dogma in 1887, when the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia to draft the constitution and the structures of government, to feather their own nests, to contain the turbulent masses, called upon to fight for freedom and independence from the British in 1776, and left to their own misery and to fend for themselves once the war ended.
Adam Smith was the high priest of this ideology, the “Luther of Capitalism” in . Friedrich Engels words. The principles of the market, the invisible hand, determined the winners and losers in this new economy or a free-wheeling capitalism. Competition and accumulation of wealth and power by the few was the imperative, forcing everyone else to get on the treadmill or perish. This was the mindset of the times, which inspired the constitution, the institutions, and economic and social policies. It is not a complicated philosophy: competition, accumulation, survival of the fittest or greediest. Social Darwinism was added in the late 1800s, to give legitimacy to those who made it.
The role of the government was to do what cops and judges do, maintain law and order. Interpret the law, legislative enactments, and court rulings, to see if they square with the higher law (the constitution) written by humans. Those who advocated alternatives policies to the capitalist way of life, from the 1880s to the 1920s were branded as communists, anarchists, or people who were duped by Jewish propaganda. Pro-union activists were prosecuted for conspiring to form unions and to raise wages, as early as 1727 in Philadelphia. The message was: Americans were not capable of thinking for themselves. They were duped by foreigners. And foreigners at the turn of the 20th Century were made to feel ashamed, anglicizing their names, hiding their identify and ethnic culture, and shopping. Greeks are still struggling with this psychology. We need to impress others, the Americans. We know everything. Is this the meaning of the march on Fifth Avenue on Greek Independence Day? More next time.
*** George Gregoriou
Professor, Critical Theory and Geopolitics
Department of Political Science
The Wm Paterson University, NJ 07474