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Thursday, April 15, 2010


I regularly use Google's map function to find my way to a restaurant or campus in the Triangle area. First I input the address, and up pops a quite detailed Google map showing me the few streets around my destination, with a nice little marker pointing to the precise location. But the map is usually so enlarged that I cannot see the relationship of my destination to where I live. So I go the zoom bar on the left and hit the minus sign at the bottom a couple of times, until Google has zoomed out to the point where I can see both my own condo location and the place I am trying to get to.

Commenting on the passing political scene poses a very similar problem. I can zoom in on Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi, locating each of them precisely on today's political map, but I am so close to the minutiae of the debates over health care or immigration or bank regulation that I lose sight of where they all fit onto the larger political map. So every so often, I hit my own internal zoom-out button, to get a large-scale sense of how the political landscape has shifted over the past forty or fifty years. It helps, of course, to be as old as I am. I needn't consult books. I just have to remember how things used to be.

One of the collateral benefits of this zoom-out exercise is that certain things, such as militias and tea parties, look less scary when sized down. We all know how terrifying a caterpillar can look under high magnification. So what do I see after several clicks on the zoom out icon?

When I performed this little exercise this morning, lying in bed before I got up, I could see quite clearly how much the political landscape has changed since the 50's or 60's. Viewed from an appropriate height, it is clear that Barack Obama is really very close indeed to the little flag marking the position of Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller. Back in the day, the big split in the Republican Party was between the eastern internationalist wing and the mid-western isolationism of Robert Taft and his colleagues. Moderate or liberal Republicans [yes, Virginia, there really used to be people described as liberal Republicans] were supporters of the internationalization of capitalism, of multilateralism in foreign relations, and of a strong social safety net to protect those periodically thrown out of work by the inevitable business cycles On the left, in the Democratic Party, were staunch unionization supporters, opponents of all nuclear weapons, and even friends of the revolution wrought by Fidel Castro in Cuba. Red-baiting and Commie-hunting were abroad in the land, to be sure, but it was still possible to find serious people willing to argue for socialism with a human face.

As politicians are fond of saying when they switch parties, I did not leave the world. The world left me. These are ugly times, dispiriting times, times that I would be tempted to describe, had I a religious bone in my body, as end times. I worked for Barack Obama as hard as I have worked for any candidate in my entire life, and I wept with joy when he was elected. But I have no illusions about who he is. Obama's domestic policies are much like those of Richard Nixon, save that Obama would never consider wage and price controls. His foreign policy is essentially that of Nelson Rockefeller.

Where does that leave those of us for whom "late capitalism' was once an expression of the hope that the long night would soon be over, and then became a wry acknowledgement that things had not worked out quite as we anticipated? Obama is manifestly a dramatic improvement over George W. Bush and anyone else the modern-day Republican Party has to offer. As the saying goes, in the land of the paranoid schizophrenics, the neurotic is king. I will fight for Obama's re-election as hard as I fought for his election. But is there nothing else I can hope for, as I prepare for the next two decades [at which point I will really have to hang up my running shoes]?

The material pre-conditions for the new economic order are growing apace in the womb of capitalism, as Marx predicted [see my essay, "The Future of Socialism," which you can find on a University of Pennsylvania website by googling the title with my name]. But for a multitude of reasons, I do not believe the result will be what we on the extreme left have always meant by socialism. Rather, we will get a rationalized, international, managed capitalism that will set in stone the vast gulf between rich and poor that characterizes the modern economic world. The rationalization of capitalism will bring with it further integration of gay and lesbian men and women into mainstream society, so that my brilliant son, Tobias, will be able to marry in most states of the Union, should he choose to. The internet will continue to eat away at the entrenched authority of those who have control of the media of communication. But I very much fear that Obama is the best we are likely to get in my lifetime. Not socialism with a human face, but imperialism with a velvet glove. selah

1 comment:

Jim said...

Professor Wolff, that is a somewhat dispiriting picture you paint – to say the least. What I find most disappointing is that the intense drive towards economic deregulation that began under the Reagan Administration was continued apace by the Clinton Administration. Although we can never know for sure, a Gore Administration would have more than likely continued down the same economic path. In other words, mainstream democrats have bought wholesale the concept of “rationalized capitalism” that you speak of. Although cultural achievements will most assuredly continue to gain ground (gay rights, racial and gender equality, etc.), it certainly does not bode well for lower income wage earners. Without any effective force for regulation, has capitalism really “won”?