Search This Blog

Saturday, January 28, 2023

France and the Dilemma of Electoral Politics in the Twenty-first Century

French workers currently live nearly two years longer than their counterparts in member states in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), composed of roughly the world’s most advanced capitalist countries. Further, they retire with full benefits, on average, nearly three years earlier than their counterparts in the OECD. Thanks to a rich history of militant struggle for a shorter workweek, a greater share of national wealth, and social benefits for retirees, workers in France enjoy a higher standard of living and a much longer secure retirement than most workers in other countries.

Of course, a better, longer, more secure life comes at a cost; France devotes much more of its GDP to support retirees than other OECD countries. It should be an obvious truth that it costs more to live longer.

And the people of France want to keep this system and improve it. They believe that spending more national wealth on the people is sensible and just.

With the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, and his corporate backers threatening to raise the retirement age by two years, the opinion polls consistently show that the vast majority of those polled oppose the change. 

To bring this opinion to the attention of France’s elites, two million people rallied and marched throughout France on Thursday, January 19; in Paris alone, the march extended for two and a half miles. 

Rather than bow down to the demands for austerity and competitiveness made by capital, working people in France are fighting to retain what earlier generations have won. They do not see the fate of the elderly as negotiable. 

Instead, the people defend senior benefits as an act of solidarity and not charity.

By delaying retirement benefits for two years and shortening the retirements of French workers, politicians believe that they could save as much as 150 billion dollars per year. Of course, this “savings” will never benefit working people.

However, it is thievery with the stolen national wealth redirected toward shoring up the fortunes of the ruling class.

The day after the massive demonstrations, President Macron announced that his administration planned to increase French spending on the military by 115-120 billion dollars per year over the next six years! So the proposed savings will go into the pockets of the armament industry and further increase the tensions in Europe unleashed by the war in Ukraine.

Since the consolidation of nation-states, rulers have used war and the threat of war to rally support. Not only is the war in Ukraine a reckless step toward regional, if not global, war, but the governing cliques are using it to justify their hold on power. Military spending is exploding across the region. Fear of a mythical Russian march to the sea serves the interest of all of the capitalist powers in the Euro-Atlantic area.

As it was in the twentieth century, war is the answer to the collapse of the traditional parties; war is the distraction from the inability of the center forces to rule effectively; war is the answer given to the masses searching for political alternatives to the misrule of the few. 

But if the majority of French voters oppose Macron’s initiative, how did he get reelected? He never hid his agenda from the people. If sixty to eighty percent of the voters oppose his policies, what is the secret of his electoral victory?

Macron’s election was the result of the dilemma presented to voters in nearly all of the so-called “advanced democracies” -- those countries organized around mature capitalist economic relations, but governed by a parliamentary system with nominally universal suffrage. 

Where these countries exist-- especially the US and Europe, but others as well-- voters must choose between two ugly options. They can support political parties that have abdicated social welfare for the individualistic, winner-take-all “justice” of the market. Or, on other hand, they can opt for the bogus anti-elitist populism of the refashioned right.

Understandably, many voters have turned against traditional parties that have been won over to “serving” social justice through the mechanism of private firms, NGOs, foundations, and charitable institutions. The US Democratic Party, UK Labour, the German SPD, Italy’s Democrats, etc. have abandoned their traditional posture of partisanship for the working class and surrendered to the philosophy of “a rising tide lifts all boats” -- the politics that is dismantling the welfare state safety net.

With the traditional center-left disregarding the working class and with working people slammed by a global shift in wealth distribution, a privatization and dismantling of public infrastructure, and a radical restructuring of employment away from high-paying jobs, voters are looking for alternatives.

Sections of the traditional right-- refashioned to attack indifferent elites, construct handy scapegoats, and offer easy, but misdirected solutions-- have rushed to fill the political void. Politicians like Trump, Boris Johnson, Orbán, Le Pen, Meloni have opportunistically capitalized upon the vacuum left by the mutation of the center-left parties. Their faux-populism captured much of the forgotten working class, desperate for an alternative, any alternative.

As the traditional center-left lost ground, it raised the alarm of extremism, even fascism. Like the bourgeois parties of the past, the mainstream parties resort to fear-mongering, rather than a critical examination of their trajectory, their departure from their purported advocacy for the masses. Whether it was touting the danger of the ultra-right or trumpeting the emergence of fascism, the center-left sought to rally voters around a united front against Trump, Le Pen, Meloni, et al., a solely defensive strategy that, at best, only forestalled the continuing influence of right-wing populism.

It is in this context, following this cautious, defensive strategy, that Macron won re-election. Against the rise of the right-populist National Rally party and its presidential candidate, Marine le Pen, the traditional French parties-- including the center-left and the new left-- unconditionally threw their support behind the “safe” alternative. The left neither sought nor received any major concessions from Macron for their votes. While they drew some satisfaction from stopping Le Pen, the left now faces a Macron determined to strip the working class of hard-won gains, ironically, a move that Le Pen does not support.

Those on the left who embrace the tactic of unconditional unity against the right as an electoral strategy should take a hard, sober look at how it played out in France. Happily, millions of French citizens are rising to the challenge now posed by rallying behind a “lesser of two evils,” a “lesser” that may prove far more destructive of living standards than the “other evil.” 

As history all too often proves, giving voters something to vote against can, at best, temporarily retard the advance of the false friends of the people. Decades of fealty to the “lesser evil” myth has only spawned an ever more skeptical, cynical, frustrated electorate, desperate for an alternative. Absent a left that stands for something, voters will continue to consider faux-populism as a legitimate alternative.

Greg Godels

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Good Bye, Slavoj

With a dismal start to the new year, it was hard to find a ray of hope among war news and parliamentary foolishness.

But gifts often come from unexpected places. My daily dose of CounterPunch-- the website co-founded by one of my journalistic heroes, the late Alexander Cockburn-- served up a gift: an article by Gabriel Rockhill burying the infamous pseudo-Marxist, Slavoj Žižek, in the dung heap that he merits.

Žižek is an intellectual pederast. By that, I mean that he is one of the latest in a long line of frauds, peddlers, and opportunists who seduce young people hungry for new ideas, for radical thinking, for a vision beyond the staid, ivy-covered walls of academia. He seduces them in the cheapest, most disreputable way, by weaving long, convoluted, purposefully obscure tapestries from manufactured, tortured words and clever, but paradoxical phrases. For the inexperienced, those hungry  for a perspective only available to those who with the patience to decrypt, Žižek and his ilk are irresistibly attractive. 

Many of us-- I suspect Rockhill as well-- have fallen under the spell of one or more of these intellectual conjurers in our studies. 

As long as there has been a left, there have been the distractors, the obscurantists, the charlatans who derail movements by diverting the energies of promising young people into the weeds of opaque theory.

In my student era, it was thinkers like Herbert Marcuse and others in the so-called Frankfurt School, who painted a dark picture of left prospects, directing radicals towards cultural critiques and the political efficacy of the lumpen proletariat and third world movements and away from working class agency and the then-influential Communist movements. It was not uncommon for young activists to carry unread copies of Marcuse’s books in their book bags to impress their friends. 

Later generations of radicals were subjected to “post-Marxist” French and German thinkers, who wrote nearly unreadable texts filled with neologisms and sentences constructed (or encoded) to be deliberately provocative and ambiguous. Much of this was scattered around the vague, but radical-sounding philosophical pole of postmodernism (and post structuralism). Intellectual hipsters collected the profound-sounding works of Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, and others.

The fall of the Soviet Union only encouraged the growth and spread of confusion from thinkers who were intent upon “rethinking,” “reimagining,” or replacing Marxism. Before that devastating event, the existence of a real, existing socialist community was a splash of cold water to the faces of the academic dreamers.

Sadly, the handful of serious Marxists holding university positions are blocked from notoriety, while the poseurs like Žižek achieve celebrity status. And the best practitioners who combine theory and practice, like Michael Parenti, can’t get a teaching job or academic support at any level.

Common sense and experience should show everyone that prestige and recognition in an advanced capitalist country like the US will not find its way to authentic revolutionaries. Marxists like Herbert Aptheker, Phillip Foner, James Jackson, Victor Perlo, Henry Winston etc. never found their books reviewed in the New York Times, or their letters published. Conversely, manuscripts published by elite publishers and billed as dangerously fresh and original, like Hardt and Negri’s Empire (Harvard University Press), are invariably a trip towards an ideological dead end. 

One can almost measure a thinker or his or her work’s value by its distance from acceptability or celebrity-- the more independent and challenging to the status quo, the more distant.

Žižek enjoys wide acceptance by the capitalist establishment as the iconic left thinker, a figure posed as the embodiment of rebellion and resistance to power. Far too many fail to see the contradiction in the ruling class promoting the agent of its demise. 

Now comes Gabriel Rockhill, exposing Žižek for the scoundrel that he is. 

Capitalism’s Court Jester: Slavoj Žižek is a very long, demanding article. To smother the popularity of this intellectual fraud, one must delve into his entire career, his chameleon-like disguises, his shifts and maneuvers, his reliance upon obscure phrases and freshly minted words, his looseness with the truth disguised as “playfulness,” and his limitless opportunism. Rockhill tracks all of this, but at the cost of enormous research and documentation.

Sadly, this scholarship doesn’t fit well into the Twitter world, but no one should give an ounce of legitimacy to Žižek without reading this critique.

Rockhill recounts his own infatuation with Žižek during his formal education, his own encounter with the man, and his disillusion with his virulent anti-Communism and anti-Sovietism.

Amusingly, Rockhill dubs Žižek “the Elvis of cultural theory,” an apt description for someone who appropriated Marxism the same way that Elvis borrowed and diluted rhythm and blues for the amusement of a white, middle-strata audience at a time when the authentic practitioners were denied media access because of segregation and racism.

Žižek’s role in the anti-Communist opposition to the Yugoslavian leadership in his homeland is exposed and elaborated by Rockhill, noting the celebrity philosopher’s deep involvement with the post-Soviet regime and its move toward capitalism.

Further, Rockhill documents the convergence of  Žižek’s thinking with US (and imperialist) foreign policy, as well as his near xenophobic Eurocentrism.

The Discreet Charm of the Petty-Bourgeoisie, Rockhill’s penultimate section, takes the reader into the Lacan-Badiou-Nietzsche weeds that are the nourishment of the herbivorous Žižek. Rockhill does his best to render the discussion perspicacious, but I suspect that it is still two removes from clarity. Nonetheless, there are gems of Rockhill’s insights in the section.

I fear that Rockhill’s brilliant takedown may be lost to the tastes for brevity, shallowness, or anti-theory that plague so many on the US left. The fact that the CounterPunch link on its email blast to me took me to the wrong article only underscores my fear. 

Read this wholesome, nourishing article!

Greg Godels

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Let Them Die!

In the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s satirical world (A Modest Proposal), we might facetiously attribute the recent decline in US life expectancy to a concerted effort to strengthen the social safety net.

Politicians have been maintaining for decades that it would be necessary to reduce social security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits to keep the systems solvent. Leaders of both political parties have urged cutting benefits, changing eligibility requirements, or raising the already-high age thresholds to preserve the reserves for future recipients. Alarmists have persisted for decades, and seniors and the poor have passionately and successfully resisted cuts and changes. 

But now comes a new way of stretching the available funds for the poor and elderly: Enable and encourage them to die earlier! 

From 2019 to 2021, a calloused response to a pandemic emergency, shamefully inadequate mental health support, a poor outcome, profit-driven healthcare system, unprecedented inequality, and a ruthlessly self-centered, individualistic civil society knocked off nearly two-and-a-half years from the expected lifespan from birth. In the US, a person born in 2019 would be expected to live to be 78.8, while the same person born in 2021 would be expected to die at 76.4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). What a clever way to lessen the burden on the social safety net! No doubt, hundreds of billions of dollars will be saved! And undoubtedly, our representatives will give the savings to the military.

My guess is that many free-marketeers and debt-hawks wish that they had come up with this solution even earlier. It is far less politically volatile than raising the eligibility thresholds.

Of course, shortening life expectancy by two-and-a-half years cheats millions of the money that they have invested in social insurance. The hundreds of billions “saved” corresponds to the hundreds of billions invested in a secure future. Responsible government has stolen those benefits from those denied the same life chances that other advanced economies ensured their people over the same period.

Certainly, money is nothing compared to the prospect of premature death. The CDC estimates that the 5% drop in life expectancy between 2020 and 2021 alone accounts for 1.2 million “excess” deaths, the largest percentage drop in life expectancy since World War II. 

While the CDC has not yet offered a further analysis of life expectancy by race and ethnicity, The Wall Street Journal reveals a recent study that shows Native Americans suffering the largest drop (1.9 years) in 2021. The eight million or so US citizens who identify as Native American have lost 6.6 years of their expected lives since 2019, now living 65.2 years from birth. 

Thanks to US age eligibility, that means that Native Americans will pay into Medicare while never receiving any significant return in benefits! Further, they will only receive, at best, a token return in Social Security benefits for a lifetime of contributions! 

Similarly, an African-American worker should expect to receive approximately six years’ less of benefits than his or her white counterpart, given the disparity in life expectancy. 

Thus, many white retirees are “free riding” on the benefits earned by early deceased minorities, a stark rebuke to the racist depiction of minorities as welfare grifters.

In a society where losing one million, one hundred thousand victims to a viral infection is taken in stride, it may be more impactful to express human losses in dollars and cents.

In a society that places the health of its people in the hands of private profiteers and distributes life-giving drugs based on the ability to pay, it should be no surprise that life expectancy is declining.

In a society where citizens are expected to bear accidents, misfortune, and poor life choices alone and with no social scaffolding, death is a predictable outcome.

In a society where life-prospects are locked into an ordering based upon income and wealth, it should be no surprise that the poor and less fortunate are most likely to die prematurely.

If the US is the bellwether of capitalism and its trajectory, then the world must come to live without capitalism. 

Greg Godels