Monday, September 07, 2009

The Political Implications of the Van Jones Resignation

At midnight on Saturday night (a pre-arranged time facilitated in order to avoid media scrutiny; a clumsy attempt from an administration full of clumsiness), the White House announced it had received a resignation letter from so-called "Environmental Jobs Czar" Van Jones. Jones had come under attack from Glenn Beck, a demagogic radio and television host. Beck's attacks subsequently became talking points for Republican Senator Kit Bond and Representative Mike Pence, both right-wing extremists. Jones had committed a series of sins that would only be considered sins under the inconsistent, arbitrary and ever-shifting standards of contemporary American politics. He had once been a self-declared "communist" (more accurately he joined a Maoist-led group devoted to fighting police brutality). He had signed a petition calling for a more thorough investigation of the events surrounding the attacks of September 11, 2001. And he had called some Republicans "assholes." The last charge is particularly laughable: Dick Cheney told Patrick Leahy to "F-off" on the Senate Floor, while George Bush had referred to a news reporter as, you guessed it, an "asshole."

The great anti-racist writer Tim Wise reports:
The right has shown no shame in their relentless pursuit of Jones’s political scalp. They have fabricated from whole cloth details of his life, calling him a convicted felon and instigator of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. This, in spite of the fact that he has no criminal record whatsoever and wasn’t even in Los Angeles when those riots were happening. His arrest at that time was part of a sweep of dozens of peaceful marchers in San Francisco, involved in a protest at the time of the riots. He was released, charges were dropped, and he was paid damages by the city. This is not what happens to criminals, but rather, innocent people who have done nothing wrong. Jones should sue the living shit out of Glenn Beck, his employers at Fox News, and every other prominent liar who has repeated the baseless allegations of his criminal record in recent weeks. He should wipe them out, take their money, leave them penniless and begging on the streets, without health care. They would deserve it. Perhaps Beck's AA sponsor or the Mormons who he credits with "saving" his wretched soul can then take care of him and his family. Since surely he wouldn't want the government to lend a hand.They have twisted other aspects of Jones's past, suggesting his brief stint with a pseudo-Maoist group makes him a secret communist in the heart of government, this despite his more recent break with such groups and philosophies, in favor of a commitment to eco-friendly, sustainable capitalism. They have called him a black nationalist, which he admits to having been for a virtual political minute in his youth, and have suggested he’s a “truther” (one who believes George W. Bush masterminded the 9/11 attacks as an “inside job”). As for this last charge, their evidence consists of Jones’s signature on a petition, which originally called merely for more openness about the pre-9/11 intelligence available to the former administration, but which was later altered to reflect the conspiratorial lunacy of its creators. Jones, and many others who reject the truthers' nonsense, were tricked into signing and were appalled by the final product. But none of this matters to the right. Because after all, none of it was ever the point.

Jones was devoted to moving this country into a world of green, environmentally-friendly technology and jobs, and that posed a direct threat to oil interests. In fact, if you want to know who was really responsible for Jones' dismissal, you can look to the oil lobby, and their financing of the outfit known as "Americans for Prosperity."
AFP, and its former incarnation the Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation, are the third largest recipient of funding from the Koch Family of Foundations, which is run by the ultra-conservative oil baron Charles G. Koch. The Koch Family of Foundations has been a major funding source for many of the think tanks that are in the business of delaying action on climate change issues.

AFP, by the way, is also behind the campaign to keep 50 million Americans from getting health insurance. In the past, they have opposed efforts to curb smoking, because they have also been funded by big tobacco, an industry that has been proven to be one of the most dishonest and destructive in the nation. This is an organization with tremendous power. It is a proto-fascist organization, meaning an organization supported by the corporate elite, with the purpose of fermenting street-level intimidation, thuggery, and the disruption of the democratic process through shouting down and intimidating people at political events and open forums.

The Van Jones dismissal reveals the extent to which Barack Obama and his chief advisors have granted "veto power" to a relatively small minority of the U.S. population. The small size of that population, of course, is compensated for by two facts: First, that population represents the political views of a large section of the corporate elite. And as we know, democracy in America is a function of how much money you have, not simply the virtue of being a citizen. Secondly, this small minority of Americans has indicated a willingness to use violence to achieve its political agenda. Much of this violence, from hate-filled rhetoric to actual deployment of guns and homemade bombs, is deployed against people of color. But much of it is deployed against government officials. There's a new term for Glen Beck, Phil Kerpen, and their ilk: McVeigh-ites. And it appears that the most CHARITABLE interpretation of the Obama administration is that they are caving in out of fear that this unstable 20% of America, urged on by the McVeigh-ite party, will begin shooting and bombing. That's a legitimate fear.

But there's a less charitable interpretation, and I often believe it is the more accurate one. At least since the Great Depression, the self-appointed and sociological function of the Democratic Party has been to contain, rather than ferment, grass-roots social action, social unrest, and revolutionary progress. The Obama administration is no exception. Now, some people, our moderate friends, may believe this is desirable. Indeed, I am not currently going to take a position on whether it's good or bad. I just think it's important for people to realize what it means. It means that, sure, the election of Barack Obama might represent a step forward in some ways--particularly identity politics-based ways. But it did not represent a step forward materially or economically. Obama's election served the social function of containing and conservatizing the overwhelming, historical opposition to the excesses of the Bush administration. Do you see what I'm getting at? The election of Obama served a particular, nuanced political function. It said: "Let's take this potentially revolutionary energy and make sure it doesn't go anywhere that would threaten the material interests of the elites." The point was not merely to channel that revolutionary energy. The point was to blunt its sharpness, to cool its fire, and not because anyone feared mob rule or despotic totalitarian socialism, at least not anyone in the know, and not anyone educated. The point was to prevent the change from really being change. The nation would be immeasurably better off if we eliminated the corporate model of capitalism, as well as the corporate control of the electoral and policymaking process. Those things could be accomplished without a single drop of blood being spilled, and without a single person being taken to a gulag. But the purpose of electing Obama was not to push us in that direction, but precisely to prevent us from going in that direction.

What does this have to do with the firing of Van Jones (for it was a firing, regardless of what Jones called it)? This administration facilitated that firing as an act of penance, an acknowledgment to corporate America that the "change" the Democrats will allow will be blunt- rather than sharp-edged. The firing of Jones was a disciplinary action. But it was us who were on the receiving end of that discipline, not Van Jones. Van Jones will continue to be an activist, he'll continue to write books, and he's doing quite well for himself (not that we wish him ill). But it is we who are being disciplined. It is we who are being reminded that if we have unorthodox views, we are subject to humiliation and personal attacks and the curtailment of our professional lives. And it's not enough for us to have unorthodox views--to be disciplined, humiliated, and ostracized, those views would have to be leftist and even some liberal views. Perpetuate the myth that Obama wasn't born in the United States, and you keep your job as a Senator, Representative, or cable news host. Question capitalism, and there's no frigging way you're ever serving in the White House--even if you change your mind later. This may sound absurdly obvious, but it's important to point out, just as it's important to point out that such rules are not the result of the will of the American people (the American working class, like the working class in the rest of the world, is fairly evenly divided on the capitalism question; according to a Rasmussen poll, only 53% believe it to be better than socialism). Some opinions matter more than others. Some animals are more equal than others.

The reason Obama caved in to far right lunatics isn't out of fear of unrest, or fear of appearing extremist, or fear of losing his job. Obama didn't even cave. Obama cooperated. He fundamentally agrees that it's unreasonable to question the underlying assumptions of the dominant social paradigm. Oh, it's fine to question it in obscure books that a few dozen people read, or in a law seminar, or at an upscale party in a supporter's mansion. But don't be a street radical. Don't question it while the rabble are listening. Obama, we're told, flirted with some street radicals and found it not only distasteful, but dangerous. There's not a whole lot of street credibility in him, after all; we've always known that.

But if Obama, Axelrod and Emmanuel believe that making Glen Beck co-POTUS will get the far right to get off the moderate right's case, get the administration a pass, or even a few minutes of breathing room, that's where they're wrong. Instead, the firing (sorry..."resignation") of Van Jones marks the biggest turning point so far in the incipient comeback of extremist conservatism. What I wrote back in July is even more true today:
The reason the whole plurality of left groups, from moderate lefties who want health care reform to those opposed to imperialism and war, need to prepare for a coming rightward shift is that the antecedents are still there. The same people own the same stuff and are capable of generating more mass ideology, and if necessary more bullets, than we would ever think of producing or using. And the right has smelled blood.

And they've sure smelled blood now. We haven't seen anything yet. The implication of all this is exactly what you'd expect: The far right has forced the Obama administration to throw Van Jones under the bus. This is a major concession, and a sign of Obama's utter spinelessness. The Glenn Beck and tinfoil hat crowd will take this as a signal that they should step up their attacks, and the mainstream media, who has a stake in making conservatism look bigger than it is, will faithfully follow.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant post, Matt. Largely inarguable, in my opinion.

The only point I might challenge - and only tepidly at that - is whether or not the Obama movement and election represented a move "to prevent us from going in that direction", meaning, "Let's take this potentially revolutionary energy and make sure it doesn't go anywhere that would threaten the material interests of the elites."

Sadly, I saw little to no evidence this potential revolutionary energy existed (if by potential we mean something more than 'not literally impossible'). In debate jargon, your quiescence link story does not address your uniqueness problems. I think we radicals often overestimate the revolutionary ferment in any given era - a point Marx himself made.

I view the elite preference for Obama not so much about forestalling incipient revolutionary energy so much as an attempt to raise the level of competent governance.

Bush's jihad threatened profits not by stoking revolution but because of their evident incompetence at governing a capitalist system, as opposed to lining the pockets of Blackwater and Halliburton. Obama represents a victory of technocratic capitalism over base crony capitalism.

You are 100% correct in my opinion about the Beltway and media politics of this firing. The zombies have their pound of flesh and they will become even more ravenous and that, shockingly, is possible. The appropriate response from a narrow tactical point of view was to kick the bastards in the teeth, not accede to their demands.

Again, nice work.


Anonymous said...

Politics is like water, it follows the path of least resistance. In most cases, it is easier to ask an embattled official to resign rather than fight the good fight. Obama doesn't lose a lot of liberal support for firing Van Jones but he gets a lot of conservatives off of his back. This isn't meant to justify what he did, however, just that successful politics is rarely about doing what is right.