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Total Corruption: Report from the USA

If a reactionary is someone who answers the questions of the future with the mistakes of the past, then I gotta report there are a lot of reactionaries in the USA today. Here as in Europe, the specters of racism and xenophobia awoke to hail the new millennium, fueling a right-wing political dynamic that goes beyond each repressive law or police abuse. We like to blame these regressive trends on the wing-nuts, the Tea Partyers, the folks rotting their brains with Fox and CNN in the famous “red states”; but there’s nowhere to hide across the political fence. Returning to the status quo of the Clinton years is equally reactionary, as the Obama administration has proven with its damped-down wars and compromised economic policies. Meanwhile, hyper-leftist attempts to rouse the (extreme) left against the (extreme) right are another part of the problem: Glenn Beck in reverse. Marxist thinking—the tradition I hail from—does not have to stop in the 1930s, or in the 1960s. But that’s what it’s doing. We’re failing to perceive the present in the light of our possible futures.

Reactionaries of all stripes have not realized that the depression that started in 2007 will ultimately change the basic conditions of the neoliberal deal imposed by Thatcher and Reagan way back in the early 1980s. The crisis is likely to last a decade; but the solutions will define the next half-century of political and economic coexistence, just as the solutions to the stagflation of the 1970s launched us on the path of financial and information-driven globalization. If artists and intellectuals want to make a positive contribution to an extended process of change, first we have to analyze the current state of society and our own places in it. That can’t be done in a day and it won’t be done in this text either, because only a broadly shared inquiry can shift the outlook of entire social sectors. So I’d suggest that each of us begin as well as we can, with whatever local observations or theoretical concepts we can pull together, then share the debates as widely as possible until some collective conclusions emerge. The thing is to make a disagreeable question into an existential challenge and an opportunity to look forward for a change—an attitude that has long been missing in the USA.

There are at least three basic facts that explain the fear and political chaos in the United States today. The first is continuously rising inequality, which shows no sign of abating when you know that for the 38 largest American corporations, the depression year of 2009 was the most profitable ever for investors and executives, who together raked in some $145 billion. Once a country that gradually equalized opportunity with a social escalator called the public university, the US is now on its way to developing a caste system whose realities can no longer be hidden by the provision of infinite credit. Undocumented labor is encouraged by lax regulation so as to maintain profitability in construction, services, and the remains of manufacturing; meanwhile, millions of people who have seen their wages cut or their jobs delocalized are goaded by radio talk show hosts into blaming the immigrants for what the businessmen and politicians have done. For the kid who just wants to start gettin’ a life, a college degree at a total price of fifty to a hundred thousand dollars for four years is pretty hard to imagine when your parents are unemployed or behind on their mortgage (because you can’t get a loan under those conditions). Now it looks as though the depressed and semi-abandoned condition of the Midwestern cities all around my present home town of Chicago may be extended to the whole country—excepting, of course, financial nerve centers like the downtown Chicago Loop itself, home of the biggest derivatives market in the world, where the funny money keeps piling up higher and higher.

The second basic fact is a sudden expansion of the powers of the federal government, brought on not only by the financial bailout but also by the gigantic budgets of the anti-terrorist campaigns and the Bush/Obama wars. This is interpreted as socialism by the reactionary right, and it’s laid at the feet of the Obama administration; but it’s a consequence of American-led neoliberal globalization that has intensified exploitation, exclusion, and instability all across the world. 9/11 was the first case of blowback, but even more threatening is the situation in neighboring Mexico, flooded by American guns and caught in the grip of brutal drug cartels. Over the past fifteen years since the advent of NAFTA, Mexico’s agricultural economy has been destroyed by so-called free trade and increasing numbers of campesinos have been forced to choose between working in the dope fields, migrating to slums on the edge of the cities, or crossing the border themselves. This situation is directly maintained by the hypocrisy of the US governing consensus, which keeps drugs illegal and blames the countries that produce them for our own psychotropic appetites. But that’s just one example of the many forces driving the expansion of the homeland security apparatus; and it is ironic that the ecological crisis produced by overconsumption will soon be another, according to military projections.

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