Thursday, February 01, 2007

What's Left?

Comment is free: Nothing left of Nick
Cohen's misfortune is that his book has appeared at the very moment when the arguments of the real left - the anti-war left, the only left worth the name - the left that mobilised hundreds of thousands of Americans to demonstrate against their government in Washington last weekend (an event I was honoured to be able to participate in) in favour of national independence, international law and against imperial aggression are being spectacularly vindicated - a vindication that is mainly of value as a call to further action against war and injustice.

I'm still trying to get ahold of this book--everyone else seems to have a copy and the reviews are coming thick and fast. It seems dishonest to comment before I actually read it but I do think I get the drift. Besides, this is my blog and I can speculate if I want to.

When I was in Kenya, after crossing the equator to the Southern Hemisphere, the first thing I did was run to the nearest bathroom to see if the water really spun down the drain in the opposite direction. The drain, like most things in Kenya, didn't work very well and, as far as I could see, the water just went straight down very slowly with a good deal of burping, gurgling and hiccoughing. I put this down to it's being so close to the equator that there was no clear result.

Politically, things don't spin in the same direction that they do in the UK on this side of the Atlantic and that may be why Cohen's book and the criticism it's gotten seem peculiar to me. "The anti-war left, the only left worth the name" is especially puzzling to me as an American because here in the US there's so much more for the Left to do.

We don't have any social safety nets to speak of in the US. You use up your unemployment or go beyond the the 5 year lifetime cap on welfare, now known as "Temporary Aid to Families" and your own other option is begging--if you're lucky, from family members, if not at the entrance to your local supermarket. Your social worker may be able to get you on Disability, which pays minimally if you can produce documentation to show that you have some chronic mental or physical illness but otherwise you're on your own. The Salvation Army may help out. We don't have the National Health. If you aren't insured, you go to the nearest hospital emergency room for routine doctor's visits--they can't turn you away. If you have some income, they'll arrange a payment scheme, if not they'll just pass the cost of your visit--many times more than it would have been if you'd just gone to a doctor (which you can't afford) on to paying customers, that is to say, on to their insurance companies.

We have a huge growing gap between the rich and the poor and the world's biggest gap between the pay of corporate CEOs and hourly workers. Of course it depends on which CEOs you're looking at and which hourly workers but whichever groups you choose to compare the difference between the gap in US and other countries is huge. In one study, adopting one set of criteria, American CEOs were paid 532 times the salary of average hourly workers in their firms whereas, by the same criteria, the figure in Japan was 11 times. No other country went beyond double digits.

The US, never particularly generous, turned hard right in 1980, when Reagan was elected and has been going further right on bread-and-butter issues ever since. Apart from the demolition of New Deal programs virtually all the policies intended to counteract the affects of discrimination against women and minorities have been taken down. School bussing to achieve racial balance went early on and schools have become increasingly segregated. Affirmative action is almost gone and anti-discrimination regulations are rarely enforced.

I'm stuck here because of my job. If I were an engineer or a nurse or had any skills that would get me a job somewhere else I wouldn't live in the US. The US is, by my criteria, a hellhole. These social policies are contrary to my deepest moral convictions. The essence of Left as I understand it is the commitment to establishing a cradle-to-grave welfare state. Everything else is peripheral and non-priority, so I am not going to get excited about one war more or less.

I do, of course, oppose the Iraq war. I demonstrated against it at the sabre-rattling stage, and would have joined the demonstrators in D.C. if it were feasible. To repeat--because I don't think anyone will notice what I just said unless I repeat it again and again or shout: I OPPOSE THE WAR IN IRAQ!!! I oppose the current regime's assinine, ham-fisted, idiotic, destructive foreign policy.

I'm not all that upset about imperialism as such though. What matters is the establishment of a welfare state. If an imperial power takes over and establishes one, in the US or elsewhere, I think that would be a good thing. Better a benevolent foreign despot treating colonial subjects to bread and circuses than a democratically elected regime under which people are begging in the streets. So, if the EU were to raise an army, invade the US and establish social democracy I would throw roses at the tanks. What matters is quality of life--not who runs the show.

I suppose once you have the National Health and social safety nets, once you know you aren't going to be begging at the freeway entrance or bankrupted by major illness you can afford to gas on about the evils of colonialism. Having forgotten what it's like to live in a hellhole like the US, to work without a net, you might imagine that the anti-war left is the only left worth the name. It's easy to forget what it was like to live like this, the overwhelming risk and chronic insecurity for those of us who are lucky and the pure misery for those of us who aren't. But anyone in the US should recognize that there's plenty for a left that's worth the name to do here besides worry about war, imperialism or, more generally, about foreign policy.


Boofykatz said...

So you think that the UK cannot be a Hellhole without a net? Read the latest reports on social exclusion and class immobility. New labour, lead by a product of the upper middle class disintelligentsia, has presided over a period of unparallelled social atrophy. Tony Blair even admitted this on this morning's Today programme. The man is a self-idealised apologist; if you see what I mean. I regret that I cannot post more sensibly at this time. I am overwhelmed by the sheer hubris and self-serving rationalisation of Nu-labour. Not only would I not 'piss on them if they were on fire', I would race to the nearest garage for another can of petrol.
John Rawls may well end up being the Augustine of politics, and it is enlightening that Anthony Blair is as ignorant of Rawls as he is of Mendel, Maxwell, Plank, Einstein, Weigner and Dennett. The man, and his obscene spouse, are products of our ridiculously incestuous political system. It is bizarre that such an intellectual tosser (I like this word, it was applied to me at one time with good reason) is permitted to psychologically piss upon his electorate. I suspect that when he sits in a focus group his correspondents are very polite. Mr Blair, come and hammer on my door. Ask me for my vote. Explain to me why you have invaded Iraq with no exit plan.

H. E. said...

I didn't say the UK was great, and I don't think it is, though I do believe it's better than the US. I suspect EU countries on the Continent are a lot better.

As far as political dynasties, the US has only been around for a little over two centuries now and as far as presidents we've had: John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, George W. H. Bush and now Little Bush--and we're looking at the possibility of Bill and Hillary Clinton. I realize you have a hereditary monarchy--and my late father-in-law was chronically steamed up about Betty Battenburg as he called her. But, apart form Pitt the Elder and Younger, can you top that? I don't like Tony, or Cherie, one bit but compared to what we've got--count your blessings.

I confess I've never been in the thick of it, never been up North, and only to London I think four times briefly as a tourist. But at least 2/3 of the time that I go to my local supermarket here, in a leafy suburb, there is either someone begging outright at the door or a male-female couple asking for money to wash my car windows. I don't see this in Swindon and, maybe I've got this wrong, but I never got the impression that Swindon was supposed to be particularly posh.

Anonymous said...

I myself guess ... and it is only that ... that something like the Iron Law of Oligarchy (q.v.) is operating, but at broader, more social and economic level. Doesn't matter what the Left _or_ the Right think (if you can call it that), there's to be a new, stronger and more centralized economic oligarchy and they'll do what oligarchies have always done ... i.e., as they damn well please.

Northern and Western Europe will hold out the longest, but even their welfare states will fall as they are beseiged by economic migrants from the Two-Thirds World, as we are in the US today.

I myself take comfort in a somewhat modified version of the American Dream ... that I'll be dead before it gets really bad.

Or maybe it's just this wretched cold I have.

Boofykatz said...

Well my in-laws live in Swindon, and I have had many a good pint at the plough in Wanborough, and I can tell you that it is bloody M4 corridor upwardly mobile posh compared to Rotherham or Rawtenstall - well maybe not Rawtenstall. Walk through the main shopping centre in Swindon, see how many people with mangy dogs and an inexhaustible supply of roll-ups ask you to buy the 'Big Issue'. They are not dying, just homeless and hopeless. The jolly NHS will prescribe them antibiotics to keep them alive while they sleep in the gutter. The mean wage in this hole is about 40kpa but the median is about 12kpa. Our underclass is growing like topsy and access to good remuneration is almost entirely dependent upon cronyism of one sort or another. All parties admit that social mobility has declined over the past twenty years and shows no indication of changing - this from a so-called socialist government. I would be encouraged if this were why the electorate viewed politics with contempt, but, in truth, politics is viewed with contempt not because it is immoral but because it is largely inaccessible.
It takes little research (try it, ten minutes on Google will do)to demonstrate the stranglehold that an Oxbridge coterie sponsored by an upper money class establishment has on UK government. The fact that, as Roy Jenkins put it, Blair is a second class intellect with a first class personality, does not make us an egalitarian society.
In the immortal words of Sid Vicious, I wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire.