By George Gregoriou
Trying to make sense of the health care war, in the wealthiest country on earth is not easy. We are in a dysfunctional political system, drafted to be that way by the founding fathers who fragmented power to prevent the majority of people voting to rule—read Federalist Paper #10! My way, is to follow Willie Sutton’s law: “Go Where the Money is!” A reminder! When Willie Sutton was asked by a judge why he robbed banks, he responded: “your honor, that is where the money is!” If we follow the trail of money, to and from the government, we can tell what kind of a government we have–a government of the few, not the many? When investigating a crime, a detective will ask: “Who benefited from the crime? The likelihood is that the person who benefits, committed the crime. It’s the same with politics. Who benefits from the government’s actions — $750 billion to bail out the Wall Street financial institutions and the auto industries? Compare that to the breadcrumbs, to rescue the unemployed and those foreclosing their homes! Who went home with millions of dollars in bonuses? Fifteen million are without jobs, even abandoning their homes because they are worth less than the money they owe on them. So, on whose side is the government, the banks or the unemployed?
The American people are unique—they are anti-political. When a politician or a union leader is caught in a crooked deal, the first thought is: all politicians, and all union people, are crooked! When a businessman or Wall Street tycoons are caught in crooked deals—we say, they are doing their job, making a profit! The distinction between what is ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ is a fine line. St. Augustine, in his book ‘The City of God’ attempted a distinction. He writes about Alexander the Great meeting a pirate on the high seas. He tells him: “How dare you molest the high seas, with your ship?” The pirate responded: ‘Because I have one ship, I am a pirate. You have an entire navy, you are a King!” Both were plundering, one representing a powerful state, the other himself and his fellow pirates. Such fine line distinctions permeate every society. The war over the health care reform had little to do with the health of the American people, though the country was on the verge of an open war between the supporters of health care reform and the opponents. The Republican strategy was to defeat the health care reform, by any means necessary. The Democratic strategy was to compromise, and compromise, to get something, anything, as long as it did not include the single payer plan.
A ‘civilized’ society, health care is a right, guaranteed to all people, in a single payer plan. Its financing comes from taxes, just like Social Security and Medicare. This is a right, and a requirement. Years ago, I read the black board at a Saturday workshop for gifted children at Glen Rock (NJ). The question on the board was: “What are the basic needs of human beings?” The answer: “some food, some shelter, some clothing, and someone!” I read most of the great political philosophers in the Western world. Many of these philosophers were no match to the basic and profound insights into the human condition by the 7-8 year old children at Glen Rock.
The health care debate in the US Congress and the media did not reflect a civilized United States. It was a war of words, insults, between conservatives and liberals? Was it really? This ‘uncivil’ exchange had little to do with ideology, nor health. Why? In my view, there is only one ideology, which dominates in the American political discourse. It is Liberalism, exported from Europe to the New World, by the colonial settlers. It grew in hothouse fashion in the US, at the expense of natives, slave labor, and wage laborers flooding the ‘new’ world from the ‘old’ world. The system was set up to be what Michael Parenti titled his book, ‘Democracy for the Few’.
Political legitimacy to the Liberal ideology was provided by the ascending middle class (those sandwiched between the feudal aristocracy and feudal laborers, on farm land), (b) the philosophy of the classical liberals (Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Bentham , and all the utilitarian philosophers across the European continent. The laissez-faire philosophers and Adam Smith gave liberalism and free market idealogy (the two were married) its broader acceptance. The mixing of the two led to the demise of the liberal ideology, in favor of the economistic ideas, related to the market laws and capitalism. This ideology came to dominate in Europe and other parts of the merchant and industrial world. With the collapse of feudalism (1400 to 1600) and the ascendancy of the middle class to power and the dominance of its ideology: market capitalism, limited government, laissez-faire, the laws of supply and demand, competition, accumulation.
The role of the government was limited to keeping law and order (at home and abroad), coining money (a common national currency), adjudicating disputes (having enough cops and executioners to maintain law and order), and unlimited accumulation of wealth, as long as it was carried out according to the new (liberal legalities) and the rules of competition—which were not in place then, nor since. This ideology, to repeat, came to be known as ‘Classical Liberalism’, identified with the school of Utilitarianism (Epicurus’ universal pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, as the universal rule guiding human beings in all their activities). It was for the common good.
The laws of competition and accumulation were projected to benefit the society, through increased (mass) production, quality goods, and lower prices, tanks to technology, competition, and mass production. The reality was something else. The nature of market competition (wherever they existed) led to a society dominated by the few over the many, leading to the British parliament passing the Anti-Monopoly Act (1624). This did not stop the monopolies, the main source of conflict during the English Civil War (1640s) between the well-to-do Independents and the Levellers (lower middle class) and the Diggers (poor). The Levellers wanted to level things, between the rich and those in the middle. The more radical Diggers, wanted those who ‘digged’ the land, to own it.
The Civil War (1640s) did not alter the situation. Monopolies were growing like mushrooms, with the monarchy sanctioning them, for a good fee, leading to the East India Company, the Spanish Company, the Russia Company, and many other giant corporations/monopolies (incorporated then (as now) to avoid liabilities for damages, such as death at work, due to accidents or sinking ships across the international waters. Adam Smith came to the rescue of this market ideology in his writings (The Wealth of Nations (1776). It served as the ‘Bible of Market Fundamentalism’ to all the believers, in the next 300 plus years. I believe that most the defenders of this ideology, did not read Adam Smith, or, if they did, they took out what suited them. Adam Smith gives legitimacy to the market ideology over monopolies, to repeat, for its use of technology, mass production, quality goods, and lower prices—thanks to the laws of competition.
It was not a coincidence that the 19th Century critic (F. Engels) labeled Adam Smith as the ‘Luther of Capitalism’. Just as Luther denounced the monopoly of power and ‘religious truth’ by the Vatican (it’s in the media dail!) Smith denounced the corporate monopolies, in favor of competition. Just as Luther sought to have every believer achieve his/her own salvation through the scriptures, hard/good work, and belief in god, Smith favored the entrepreneur, doing his own thing, working for his own interest and promoting the common good (as in Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714)—each bee is pursuing its own self-interest and collectively they produce the honey for all the bees (poor drones were left out!). The idea that every individual can do his/her own thing and succeed, whether in the pursuit of salvation in god (Protestantism) and/or the pursuit of wealth by each entrepreneur, benefitting the whole society, was an attractive idea, compared to the hard work of many impoverished serfs throughout the feudalistic formation.
The economic and philosophical justification, provided by Adam Smith and the laissez-faire economists, throughout Europe, came to be the new gospel. In this sense, the philosophical core of Liberals and Conservatives in the United States has been the market ideology, competition, accumulation of wealth and power (capitalism). Political power is equated with wealth, property, access to media, and governmental institutions! The only difference between Classical Liberals and modern Conservatives is this: Conservatives adhered to the principles and laws of capitalism as they imagined they existed in the 17th and 18th centuries. This prompted Tipp Oneill to comment in the 1980s that Ronald Reagan would have made a great president in the 17th Century! In other words, modern Conservatives (the market fundamentalists, not the Burkian conservatives) are just like the liberals of the 17th century. They do not know which century they live in. On the other hand, the Classical Liberals, responding to the crises in capitalism, the challenges of labor movements, Utopian Socialism, and Marxism, from the French Revolution (1789), the 19th Century, the 20th and 21st centuries, moved forward. These historical events transformed Classical Liberals into Neo-Liberals (or Welfare Liberals) by the labor movement in Britain, German socialism, and the philosophies of John Stuart Mill and T. H. Green in the late 1800s, The New Deal (FDR) in the 1930s (United States), and the challenges from revolutionary Marxism in theory and practice, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the ten days that shook the world, as it was labeled.
The core of the Neo-Liberal philosophy is still market capitalism and limited government. But, Neo-Liberals or Welfare Liberals want the government to play a positive role, by providing food, jobs, shelter, and education. As J.S.Mill put it, the ‘under-fed denizen of the London yard, cannot enjoy the fruits of the English civilization’! In a way, the Conservatives and Liberals tell the government/the state to leave us alone, in the pursuit of happiness (happiness equated to money/property?) and in the pursuit of our civil liberties. All humans, to Classical Liberals and Modern Conservatives, are self-oriented, all pursue pleasure and avoid pain (the Epicurus utilitarian principle), and all humans want to maximize pleasure. Hence the role of the government is to leave us alone, to do our own thing! On the other hand, The Welfare Liberals/Neo-Liberals moved forward, and are more in line with FDR, LBJ, and Obama. To them, the government has a role to help people be free, end racism, sexism, and homophobia, provide the educational means, to free people, create jobs, clean the environment, provide health care, security for old age, etc., that is, help those who fall through the cracks of the market economy, to stand on their two feet!
Is this socialism? To those who are clueless, or equate socialism with government control–Big Government/Socialism, Obama is taking us to Socialism, and we must stop him, defend the legacy of the founding fathers! Does this argment make any sense? Take the Social Security, for example. Ronald Reagan wanted to privatize it, to make it work better in the private sector! The real reason was to pour billions of dollars into Wall Street, make the gambling casino healthier, financially, not the little gamblers! Reagan had second thoughts when 37 million gray panthers (seniors) threatened to kick him out of the White House, if he privatized social security. George Bush II was tempted to do the same. As a Conservative, Reagan and his ‘follower’ Bush, were committed to the market fundamentalist ideas of Milton Friedman (Capitalism and Freedom, 1964) (though Milton Friedman states in the introduction to his book that his ideas are ‘radical liberalism’ (now, how radical could one be if he/she went back to the market fundamentalism of the 17th Century? Milton Friedman wanted to privatize the public parks, schools, and the Post Office! Now, if a ‘giant’ thinker, such as Milton Friedman (who won a Nobel Prize in economics) could not get it right, why would a ‘third-rate actor (Reagan) get it right. I will not comment on a ‘beer quafer’ and failed student (Bush II), who became president, to do better than his mentor Reagan! (It will continue, next time).
George Gregoriou, Critical Theory and Geopolitics
Professor Emeritus, Political Science Department
The William Paterson University, Wayne, NJ 07030