[Marxism] The Austerity of Hope
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Tue Feb 21 10:04:48 MST 2012
Counterpunch February 21, 2012
Paternity Over Fraternity!
The Austerity of Hope
by VIJAY PRASHAD
Poor Mitt Romney. He is worth “somewhere between $190 and $250 million”.
Even he is not sure of his net worth. He cannot account for the gap of
$60 million. CNN asked the multiple-millionaire about his economic
policy. He said, “I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m
not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it
needs repair, I’ll fix it.” He has been pilloried for his callousness
not only by the Democratic Party but also by his own Republican primary
Rick Santorum, who has been a steady challenge to Romney, said that
Romney’s comments about the poor “sent a chill down my spine”. Romney,
who not only comes from the world of finance capital but also is its
preferred candidate, has been unable to grasp the deep crisis of
everyday life for millions of Americans.
The “safety net” that Romney mentioned has been frayed beyond
recognition since the 1980s. One of the most grotesque problems is
hunger. Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture reported
that in 2010 about 17.2 million households in the U.S. did not have the
resources to buy food (that is about 14.5 per cent of all households).
Additionally, about 6.4 million households reduced or disrupted their
eating habits because of a lack of access to food. To seek food, the
U.S. Department of Agriculture showed, people had sought refuge in
emergency food pantries. During the recession’s early years, 2007 to
2009, use of these pantries increased by 44 per cent. The Agriculture
Department’s September 2011 report on “Household Food Insecurity in the
United States” showed that one in six Americans do not have the money to
feed themselves. The problem is acute.
Charity fills in the gap left by an inadequate governmental response.
But here the challenge is enormous. With anxiety about the economy,
charitable giving has dropped significantly (by 11 per cent to the big
charities). Donations to organisations that help the very poor have
dropped even further. According to the Nonprofit Research Collaborative,
the charities with less than $3 million to spend saw their donations
fall the most. These charities, such as homeless shelters and food
pantries, are the ones that serve the very poor. They are in dire straits.
The children’s TV show “Sesame Street” has introduced a new puppet,
Lily, whose task is to speak on the problem of food insecurity once a
week to the children who tune in. She does not get enough to eat. She
will share her story with children who are in her predicament. At least
the puppet is concerned for the very poor.
Building on his surge in the Republican primaries, Santorum went to give
a big speech in Colorado Springs, the heartland of the new American
conservatism. Santorum, who went on to win the primaries in Colorado,
Missouri and Minnesota, told the thousand people in the Biggs Centre
that he wanted to distinguish between the French Revolution and the
American Revolution. The French had a three-part slogan, two of which
Santorum was happy with: Liberty and Equality. The third, Fraternity,
was not appropriate because it suggested that people in community would
be able to
create codes to live by. Santorum preferred Paternity to Fraternity,
with the Father being God. God’s law should precede human law. No one
amongst the Republicans challenged this anti-democratic tendency towards
Rather than deal with the serious problems of hunger and homelessness,
the right wing has tried to shift the debate toward what are known as
“social issues”. These include abortion rights, marriage rights for gays
and lesbians, discussions about birth control and sexuality in schools,
as well as the teaching of diversity in schools. The Right remains
fixated on the body and on sexuality, with a morality that is out of
touch with the everyday lives of people. No wonder that one of the
problems for the Right has been the constant eruption of scandals among
its leadership, with this or that spokesperson for an anachronistic
morality found with sex workers or with pornography. Hypocrisy is the
touchstone of an obsolete morality.
As part of his health care overhaul, President Barack Obama announced a
rule that all health care providers (including religious hospitals)
needed to provide free contraception for their employees. They did not
have to provide contraception to their customers, but their employees
had to be covered by federal mandates. A 2010 study in Vital and Health
Statistics showed that 99 per cent of women aged 15 to 44 in the U.S.
had used at least one contraceptive method. In other words,
contraception use is universal among women in the U.S. It seemed as if
the Obama policy was, therefore, quite straightforward and of great use
to the 62 million women of childbearing age in the U.S.
Nevertheless, the Right went ballistic, calling the Obama policy an
infringement on religious freedom. This is fairly typical of the Right,
which masquerades its social suffocation as freedom. Santorum’s linkages
between liberty and equality with the sanctity of God’s Law is an
example of this unhappy marriage.
With Obama having been painted as anti-religion, it was impossible for
the White House to stand firm on its principle. Harder for Obama to
navigate this issue with one in five Americans of the erroneous view
that Obama is a Muslim. Instead, Obama had to compromise with the Right
and allow religious health care providers to sidestep this provision.
Despite Obama’s surrender to the Right, Romney tried to fan the fire of
this issue, “I will reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks
our religious liberty and threatens innocent life in this country.”
The Right has gone ballistic on contraception but is virtually silent on
the home foreclosure crisis and on the criminal activity by banks.
Millions of Americans have been turned out of their homes as a result of
the collapse in the home mortgage market.
As part of the neoliberal transformation of the U.S., low-rent,
government-provided homes disappeared from the 1980s, with the private
sector coming in as the main provider of homes. But with wage incomes
stagnant since the 1970s, and with little wealth in the hands of
ordinary people, the only way for them to get the keys to a home was
through no-money-down, balloon payment mortgages. Banks devised these
schemes to ensnare desperate people into homes, and then moved their
mortgages into the secondary and tertiary financial markets as
securities to be traded. These securities were given good bond ratings
from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, whose culpability has not been fully
When it became clear that these securities were built on unsustainable
dreams, the housing market collapsed. Banks received bailouts (along the
grain of the neoliberal view that the government must make sure to
remove Bad Money from the financial system and replace it with Good
Money). There was no bailout for the millions of Americans. They were
evicted from their homes.
Popular outrage at the criminal behaviour of the banks forced an
investigation of financial activity. Banks were afraid that they would
face a series of lawsuits from public interest litigants and from those
among the foreclosed that might be gathered together into class action
lawsuits. This was the spur for the banks to begin negotiations with the
government for a deal.
The Obama administration and several Attorneys General of the different
States sealed a bargain with the banks in early February, where the
banks promised to pay $5 billion into a fund, which would include $21
billion taxpayers’ money. This fund would be used to pay out between
$1,500 and $2,000 per borrower foreclosed upon, between September 2008
and December 2011. It is a ridiculously small amount of money both from
the banks and to the victims of the foreclosure epidemic. That means the
government believes that the fine to banks for forging and fabricating
documents is no more than $2,000. The government decided to settle with
the banks (including the worst offender, Bank of America) without any
serious investigation of their offences.
Foreclosures slowed down in 2011 in anticipation of this bank deal.
“Foreclosures were in full delay mode in 2011,” notes Brandon Moore of
RealtyTrac, which follows the housing market very closely.
“The lack of clarity regarding many of the documentation and legal
issues plaguing the foreclosure industry means that we are continuing to
see a highly dysfunctional foreclosure process that is inefficiently
dealing with delinquent mortgages – particularly in States with a
judicial foreclosure process. There were strong signs in the second half
of 2011 that lenders are finally beginning to push through some of the
delayed foreclosures in select local markets. We expect that trend to
continue this year, boosting foreclosure activity for 2012 higher than
it was in 2011, though still below the peak of 2010.”
This is a very chilling thought, that the bank deal will not stem the
foreclosure crisis but intensify it.
Police action against the Occupy movement has cleared out most of the
encampments. The Occupy movement has now shifted its focus towards much
more focussed, local political endeavours (including fights against
One year ago, in Wisconsin, a massive social upsurge promised to open up
a new dynamic in America. With the labour movement as its backbone, the
Wisconsin demonstrations that began in March 2011 showed what was
possible when the people refused to back down before the politics of
cruel austerity (the story is captured in a new book edited by Mari Jo
and Paul Buhle, It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines
of the New Labor Protest, Verso, 2012). One hundred and fifty thousand
people, mainly those affiliated with trade unions, stood in the cold and
occupied the State House against their Governor Scott Walker.
Seven months later, in New York, the Occupy movement took off and spread
across the country. It was grounded in the many facets of social
distress in the U.S.
The initial position of both the Wisconsin protests and the Occupy
movement was to change the conversation from the defence of the banks
and the question of “social issues” to the broad questions of freedom
and justice in the country. When the state decided to respond to these
protests with police pressure, the immediate issue before the protesters
was to deal with the forces of repression. The conversation around
social suffocation and economic distress had to be set aside.
The battle lines were drawn between the police and the protesters, when
the real contradiction is between the people (the 99 per cent) and the
powerful (the 1 per cent). As cruel austerity cuts into the social lives
of Americans, it is likely that the full range of issues that debilitate
the well-being of Americans will return to the table. The tragedy is
that neither of the two mainstream parties is capable of holding a real
debate over these issues. They have other obligations, other priorities.
VIJAY PRASHAD is Professor and Director of International Studies at
Trinity College, Hartford, CT. This Spring he will publish two books,
Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press) and Uncle Swami: Being South Asian
in America (New Press). He is the author of Darker Nations: A People’s
History of the Third World (New Press), which won the 2009 Muzaffar
Ahmed Book Prize.
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