Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mapping the American Oligarchy

Pakistan's turbulent history, a result of continuous military rule and unpopular global alliances, confronts the ruling elite now with serious choices. They appear to have no positive aims. The overwhelming majority of the country disapproves of the government's foreign policy. They are angered by its lack of a serious domestic policy except for further enriching a callous and greedy elite that includes a swollen, parasitic military. Now they watch helplessly as politicians are shot dead in front of them.
This is British journalist Tariq Ali commenting on the assasination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan in the Guardian Unlimited. But outside the assassination of politicians, much of what Ali says about Bhutto can also be said about the United States as well. The overwhelming majority of the American public disapproves just as much of Bush foreign policy as Pakistanis disapprove of Pakistan's American allegiance. Americans are also angry about the lack of a "serious domestic policy" in areas like health care and infrastructure repair and American economic policy has been primarily devoted to "enriching a callous and greedy elite" ever since the Reagan years.

The American elite is also making specific choices in how to deal with the many crises created by the criminality and incompetence of the Bush administration. According to Glenn Greenwald, several sectors of the elite or "political establishment" are rallying around the protection of the Bush administration from criminal prosecution.

In case after case, our political establishment has adopted the "principle" that our most powerful actors are immune from the rule of law. And they've adopted the enabling supplemental "principle" that any information which our political leaders want to keep suppressed is -- by definition, for that reason alone -- information that is "classified" and should not be disclosed.

But why is the American political establishment circling the wagons at this point. We can think fruitfully about this question by identifying the particular quandaries of the American elite or establishment at this point in time. In Pakistan, the rule of a predatory oligarchy" that includes the military is guaranteed by military force when it cannot be achieved through democratic political mechanisms. Backing up the power of the Pakistani military has been American economic and military power. This is one of the lessons that Benazir Bhutto learned during her two turns as prime minister.
She was not a natural politician and had always wanted to be a diplomat, but history and personal tragedy pushed in the other direction. Her father's death transformed her. She had become a new person, determined to take on the military dictator of that time . . . She changed again after becoming prime minister. In the early days, we would argue and in response to my numerous complaints - all she would say was that the world had changed. She couldn't be on the "wrong side" of history. And so, like many others, she made her peace with Washington.

To the contrary, the American elite has found it possible to dominate through an alliance with the far right. Traditionally, the American business and political elite dominated as the senior partner of an alliance between the corporate/political sector and what the sociologist William Domhoff calls the "ultra-conservative" faction comprised of the religious right, the NRA, war-mongers and other far right constituencies. Together, the corporate/political sector and "ultra-conservatives" managed to outweigh liberal/progressives and either get their tax-cutting/ deregulation policies passed or keep liberal progressives from enacting any initiatives that undercut corporate interests.

What happened with the Bush administration is that the "ultra-conservatives" got the upper-hand over the traditional corporate/political sector and gained control of the levers of the federal government for the first time in the history of the United States. There have been times when the far right has had control of Congress and the far right has controlled state governments in the South for decades at a time. But it appears that the Bush administration is the first federal government dominated by the far right in American history.

This poses several problems for the traditional corporate/political sector.

1. The traditional corporate/political sector has lost control over a Republican Party that is now completely dominated by the far right. The Bush administration gives the corporate sector what it wants in the way of regulatory and tax policy, but the overall direction of federal government policy under the Republican Bush administration is set by the far right. Given that the traditional corporate/political sector no longer exercises direct control over a political party, their influence over the direction of American government has been decisively weakened.

2. The war in Iraq and scandals of the Bush administration have resulted in a resurgent liberal/progressive movement that threatens to undercut the control of top management over corporate operations and corporate profitability as well as further reduce corporate influence on federal policy. Liberal/progressives have once again become a force in the Democratic Party and the traditional corporate/political sector must view the resurgence of liberal/progressive politics as particular threatening given that they no longer have control over the Republican Party.

3. The Bush administration is threatening to blow up in a series of scandals over politicizing law enforcement, warrantless wiretapping, data-mining, and torture that could result in the very least in long investigations and indictments of Bush officials for breaking American laws against government abuses and obstructing justice. Years of investigating the abuses of right-wing government could serve to weaken both the far right and the corporate sector to the point where liberal/progressives are looking at a long stretch of political domination similar to the New Deal years.

This is the context in which the political establishment is acting to both provide support for the Bush administration and the far right and explore strategies for recreating a business-oriented government consensus. The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and other media outlets are falling all over themselves to give far right figures like William Kristol opportunities to present and defend their views. The news media has also been favorable to the Bush administration's efforts to stonewall Congressional and judicial investigations into the destruction of interrogation tapes, warrantless wiretapping, vote suppression efforts, and other criminal activities in the Bush administration. More importantly, media figures have fought to ensure that Bush administration criminality does not receive the sensationalizing treatment given Britney Spears on a routine night of clubbing.

But the limits of the traditional corporate/political sector can be seen in the efforts of moderate business-oriented figures like David Broder, David Boren, and Sam Nunn to call for a "national unity government" and a return to bipartisan "consensus." This kind of moderation originally lost out to the far right because the Broders, Borens, and Nunns were much less creative and energetic than the Newt Gingriches, Tom DeLays, and Mitch McConnells of the world. There's no reason to think that business-oriented moderation is going to be any more inspiring now than it has been for the last 15 years. Whether the corporate sector likes it or not, the main conservative opposition to progressive/liberals now comes from the far right.

Given the current difficulties of the traditional American establishment, there are two directions they can go. First, the traditional elite can try to come to an accommodation with Democratic Party elites and progressives in the context of a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama administration. It seems that this will be tried if one of the Democratic candidates wins in 2008. If that doesn't work, they will most likely swallow their pride and throw their full support behind the far right.

In that case, the U. S. will look even more like Pakistan than it does now.

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