The great unmentionable
22 October 2009The past week has seen a number of worried commentaries from liberal supporters of Obama on the state of social and political relations in the United States.
Among the columnists who have written along similar lines are Frank Rich, Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert of the New York Times, and Katrina vanden Heuvel of the Nation.
All of these writers proceed from a fact of American life that is becoming impossible to deny: the sharp divergence in the fortunes of the banks and investors, on the one hand, and the broad mass of the population, on the other. The Wall Street giants, the very firms that precipitated the financial crisis, are doing better than ever. They are planning record bonuses while unemployment continues to soar and wages are declining at a rate not seen in decades.
The proliferation of these columns is itself an indication of the depth of social tensions and the level of popular disillusionment with the Obama administration. Sensing the anger that is building up, the authors write as advisers to the administration: How can this opposition be contained?
Herbert (“Safety Nets for the Rich,” October 20), adopts a populist tone, complaining, “Even as tens of millions of working Americans are struggling to hang onto their jobs and keep a roof over their families’ heads, the wise guys on Wall Street are licking their fat-cat chops over yet another round of obscene multibillion-dollar bonuses—this time thanks to the bailout billions that were sent their way by Uncle Sam, with very little in the way of strings attached.”
Rich (“Goldman Can You Spare a Dime,” October 18) refers to the projected 2009 bonuses of $23 billion at Goldman Sachs as compared to the $200 million the bank is allocating to its own education foundation. He likens this to the dimes handed out by Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller at the beginning of the 20th century.
Both Herbert and Rich urge that stronger measures be taken, with the former advocating the break-up of Goldman Sachs and the latter expressing hope for a revival of Teddy Roosevelt-style trust busting.
Underlying both columns is the concern that the Obama administration’s promises of “hope” and “change” are increasingly perceived by those who voted for Obama as hollow phrases. Rich complains that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is “tone deaf” and that “an air of entitlement” wafts from the administration.
People are beginning to feel that they have been duped into lending their support to a government that is unreservedly serving the interests of the banks. To the layer of the liberal establishment represented by Obama’s journalistic would-be advisers, the eruption of opposition to the Obama administration would be an unmitigated disaster.
Vanden Heuvel (“Happy Days?” October 16) is perhaps the most explicit in stating this position. “There is a growing danger that the public face of the Obama administration’s response to this Great Recession is the Bank Bailout,” she writes. “There is a real threat to the possibility and promise of the Obama administration.”
Her advice to Obama is to adopt more of a left tone. “The administration needs to switch this frame.” Following “a multi-trillion-dollar giveaway to get Big Banks back on track for billion dollar bonuses,” she writes, “It’s time for the Obama administration to act with equal boldness on behalf of regular folks.”
The central aim of these figures is to prevent workers from drawing broader conclusions about the nature of the government and the two-party system. They are engaged in a deliberate cover-up. From the beginning, the administration has been, and could only be, a government of the financial and corporate elite. The administration’s actions are determined by the class interests it represents.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration revealed that it is planning on imposing cuts in executive pay at seven companies with substantial bailout funds. The plan has the air of preemptive damage-control in the advance of bonus announcements later this year—the sort of measure that will be hailed by Obama’s liberal supporters. The steps will do nothing to address the social crisis of the working class, and the small number of executives affected will still receive compensation hundreds times that of the average worker.
In their various criticisms and complaints, what all these writers refuse to discuss is the “great unmentionable” of American politics: socialism. Unwilling to address the objective basis for the social and economic crisis and broach the only real alternative, their commentaries remain utterly banal. In the end, they are reduced to making moral appeals to the banks and pleading with Obama.
Michael Moore’s recent film, Capitalism: A Love Story, is made of the same stuff. After presenting a portrait of the crisis confronting millions of working people, Moore ends his film by calling for the replacement of capitalism not with socialism, but “democracy.”
He holds up Franklin Roosevelt and New Deal reformism as the ideal of democracy from the past, and pseudo-populists like Democratic Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, as well as Obama himself, as its incarnations in the present. (In a recent column, Moore pleads with those who are angered by Obama’s policies: “Don’t abandon the best hope we’ve had in our lifetime for change.”)
The avarice of the financial elite, the blatant inequity of record bank bonuses and declining wages, along with the participation of the Obama administration in this process, are invariably presented as misfortunes.
However, the contrast between depression conditions facing the majority of the population and windfalls for the wealthy is a contradiction only in appearance. They are two sides of the same process. It is through a sharp attack on living standards, jobs, wages and social programs that the financial elite is seeking to safeguard its wealth.
This, in turn, is inextricably linked to the private ownership of the corporations and banks and the subordination of the economy to profit and the interests of the wealthy—that is, to capitalism.
This proscription of socialism has a history. American liberalism long ago compromised itself by wholeheartedly embracing post-war anti-communism, which was the means through which it lined up behind the global ambitions of American imperialism. With the full support of the trade unions, socialists and militants were driven out of the labor movement.
The rejection of socialism was bound up with the rejection of class as the fundamental category of social analysis. Politics based on race, gender, sexual orientation and other identities was elevated in its stead, and became the principal foundation of the Democratic Party and the preoccupation of the broad milieu of “left” petty-bourgeois groups.
The absolute exclusion of a socialist and class analysis has helped lend American politics—and media commentary—its particularly impoverished character. And it has left the working class without a viable perspective to defend its interests.
The past year, however, has not passed in vain. Broad sections of the working class are drawing certain conclusions. The ideological edifice of capitalism has been discredited in the eyes of millions of workers, who are rapidly losing confidence in the market and all official political institutions.
The immense class anger over the social crisis and disillusionment with the Obama administration have not yet taken an open political form. They will, however, and as this happens, the great principles of the socialist movement will experience a powerful revival in the working class—in opposition to the Democratic Party and its liberal supporters.
It is on these principles that the Socialist Equality Party, and only the Socialist Equality Party, is based.
Atlanta homeless shelters strain under economic crisis
By Naomi Spencer As the economic crisis deepens, Atlanta, Georgia, emergency providers are straining to accommodate more than 7,000 homeless people, including many newly homeless families.
23 October 2009
Along with rising unemployment and a growing number of home foreclosures across the US, the homeless population is swelling far beyond the capacity of emergency facilities. Urban centers have felt the impact most sharply, with service organizations facing budget cuts at the same time that thousands are thrust into poverty and foreclosure.
According to an October 12 report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta’s Salvation Army cannot open a nearly completed homeless shelter for families because of a lack of funds. Similarly, the city’s Midtown Assistance Center, an agency providing emergency financial assistance, announced in August that it had spent twice its monthly $24,000 budget on aid in the month of July. The agency assists employed workers and those in job training who do not receive public assistance.
Another area service provider, MUST Ministries, reported that it aided 29,000 people last year, and requests for assistance are up 25 percent this year. Annette Lee, MUST Ministries’ resource development coordinator, commented to the Journal-Constitution of September 29: “It’s no longer just hourly wage workers. These are professionals—from bankers to people with masters and PhD’s…. We are seeing more and more people who are above the poverty line.”
Metro Atlanta has lost nearly 143,000 payroll jobs in the past year, according to the most recent Labor Department figures, and well over a quarter million workers are unemployed in the city. Foreclosure filings have surged, with more than 97,000 foreclosure notices served in the metro area so far this year, up from the already high 79,400 in 2008.
According to Census Bureau data released in September, nearly 26,000 metro Atlanta families fell below the poverty line in 2008—before the sharp economic decline of 2009—representing an increase of 19 percent over 2007.
The Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, a large walk-in shelter downtown, is now serving more than 700 people each night and anticipating far higher numbers as the weather turns colder. The Task Force is often the only emergency shelter open to men, after other city shelters fill with families.
According to employees, the shelter has come under attack from a local business group, Central Atlanta Progress (CAP), which wants the agency closed. The Task Force filed a lawsuit in July against CAP and members of city government on charges of harassment and interference. According to the lawsuit, the city refused to issue certifications to the Task Force that would have allowed the group to obtain government funds, despite the agency’s compliance with city requirements.
The shelter has also had its water shut off by the city twice in the past year without explanation. CAP officials have publicly expressed the opinion that the shelter breeds crime and encourages laziness among the homeless population. In September, the city petitioned to have the Task Force’s lawsuit dismissed. That petition was denied by Fulton County Superior Court.
According to Anita Beaty, director of the Task Force, more than three-quarters of the people who sleep at the shelter earn a living during the day, but not enough to afford rent in the city.
“Atlanta has been trying to hide poverty so they attack us for keeping poverty out front,” shelter employee Troy Harris told the Journal-Constitution. “If the city was doing what it says it is doing in placing people in housing, we wouldn’t have 700 people a night in here. We are the visible truth of Atlanta.”
Atlanta’s political establishment has taken several measures over the past decade to push out the poorest layers of the population and gentrify the downtown area. In the mid-1990s, in preparation for hosting the Olympics, the city initiated a systematic destruction of public housing.
The first city to open public housing units to the poor in the 1930s, Atlanta now bears the distinction of being the first city to have all of them closed down. In the past 15 years, the city has torn down some 15,000 units in 32 housing projects. According to a 2007 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology, as the number of units was halved and replaced by mixed-income communities, only one third of displaced residents were able to resettle.
As part of the same broad strategy of gentrification, beginning in 2003 Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin issued a series of orders banning such acts as donating food to the homeless on downtown streets, soliciting donations and sleeping in public areas. Atlanta police, posing as tourists, have staged a series of undercover street sweeps, arresting dozens of homeless people for asking for money.
The policies in Atlanta are not unique. Virtually all major cities in the US have put in place measures to criminalize homelessness and push shelters, clinics and other services outside of the downtown areas. As the economic crisis deepens, those pushed out of their jobs and homes will come under increasing attack, as the ruling establishment seeks to obscure the social realities.
In July, the National Coalition for the Homeless issued a report on this trend throughout the country. A survey of 235 cities found that one-third have ordinances in place banning “camping” in public areas, and 30 percent banned “sitting/lying” in public areas. Nearly half of all cities surveyed had bans on “loitering” and begging.