Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Big Picture: A 40-Year Scan of the Right-Wing Corporate Takeover of America

Author and public intellectual Colin Greer tells us how we got where we are today. It's not a pretty picture, but hope is on the way.

At this moment, there are growing protests on Wall Street in Manhattan, in Boston at the Bank of America, and in cities around the country. These embryonic and creative efforts are targeting the greed of the banks, the collusion of the corporate class with their corrupt elected officials, the high level of unemployment, the huge burden of student loans in a time of diminished opportunities, the increasing numbers of poor and hungry people, and much more. These protests, along with those earlier in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, are signs of revival of a long tradition of popular revolt against excesses of wealth and the corporate class. 

The new protests come after a long dark period -- specifically the last 11 years of George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- during which time conservatives have gained more power and ability to control the national debate than they have in the past 75 years. The current right-wing power presence, spiked by the corporate media's obsession with Tea Party protests, came most immediately as a result of the Great Recession caused by the housing bubble and obscene corruption of the banks. This crisis was exacerbated by large-scale anger about the subsequent bank bailout, and corporate-backed attacks on the health care reform package passed by Congress. But that is just part of the latest political news.

The conservative ascendancy is hardly an overnight phenomenon. Rather, it represents a dynamic shift in American politics that has taken place over more than 40 years, beginning in the 1970s. During this time, conservative billionaire donors, corporations and the Chamber of Commerce, all invested in conservative think-tanks and communications infrastructure, while Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and a broad and deep media network of right-wing pundits have come to dominate the public discourse. 

Subsequently, the liberal/progressive side of the political equation has lost much of its influence from the period of the 1970s and early '80s. How this has happened over time is little understood. In fact, the lack of protest and effective organizing against the right wing during the Tea Party ascension especially has been a mystery to many, and a source of great frustration.

Colin Greer, a transplanted Brit, has observed and engaged in every phase of progressive politics. Greer is the author of a number of books (with his best-known being The Great School Legend), has been a professor at Brooklyn College of CUNY, and for many years has served as president of the New World Foundation, known in the philanthropic world for its commitment to supporting grassroots organizing and providing seed money for many of the most effective progressive political efforts over the last decades. Over this long period, Greer has had a cat-seat view of all the forces that have shaped our last 40-plus years. He has a big-picture take on the turmoil and politics of this period, as major shifts -- globally, economically and culturally; the tectonic plates of change and reaction -- have reshaped our world in ways we have yet to fully understand. AlterNet sat down with Colin Greer in his office in New York in late September.

Don Hazen: Why have conservatives succeeded so dramatically in this period, and liberals and progressives are arguably the weakest in decades?  

Colin Greer: There is no single causal factor. The shaping of these two divergent paths begins in the 1980s when you had the last flourish of an expansive society. But the last three years of the '70s were characterized by stagflation and disappointment and took a great toll, forfeiting a real sense that the constant growth of openness in American society and economy was endlessly sustainable. Fast-forward to the present and we have the twin dominance of austerity, i.e. eviscerating public spending as the solution to economic crises; and aristocracy, represented by the protected tax and profit oasis of the wealthiest 1 percent.
It’s instructive to note that events in the U.S. are not in isolation. Back in the '60s and '70s when progressive movements were in ascendency, the liberation themes of the time were part of a global anti-colonial uprising, and broad disgust at the war in Vietnam. Today, trade policies and globalization means that the other major economies of the world are also in the grips of a greed and hyper-profit which is in the process of discarding hard won values, rights and decent living conditions. 

DH: That was Carter and also the hostage crisis too at the end of the '70s, yes? 

CG: Yeah, it’s about how social and economic consciousness changed. Carter’s inability to act effectively in the hostage crisis or to defeat stagflation reinforced a national feeling of malaise and weakness. That’s why Reagan campaigned on "hope in America" versus Carter's kind of dismal, high-standing morality, an apparent inability to act from strength. It was the beginning of a long term of undermining the presumption of multi-dimensional social and economic expansion, which had flourished since World War II.
So in the 1980s you had Reagan, along with the last flourish of direct political action on the left and the last gasps of the global social change that characterized the 1960s and '70s; i.e. the fight against apartheid, which succeeded in turning the Reagan administration around to support the anti-apartheid/ divestment movement, and you had the Nuclear Freeze movement.

DH: These were the last grassroots successes of the left?

CG: Yes. Although one can never do a one to one equation, the Freeze was a factor in Reagan's shift in nuclear arms negotiations with the Russians and the anti-apartheid divestment strategies, fueled by a popular movement with strong student leadership, which created shantytowns on campuses throughout America, helped win that struggle. 

But then there was a dramatic change in direction when the air traffic controllers went on strike. Reagan seized the moment, and fired the air traffic controllers, destroying PATCO, their union. That was the beginning of the end of the labor deal with capital; a deal that was carved out in the Cold War in which labor got negotiated settlements here at home for its support for the Cold War abroad. In a sense it was anti-red internationally and social democratic here in the United States. And that deal went through the beginning of the 1980s, until Reagan, responding to the conservative base, changed the ground rules. And with it, labor's guaranteed negotiating strength ended.

We have seen a diminishing power of labor since. And we've also seen a shrinking power of popular movements on the left as well, so that by the time we got to the invasion of Iraq, a million people in the street could be ignored. How different that was from the last gasps of enduring popular protest against Reagan’s contra-aid and its illegal processes. 

DH: Those demonstrations against the Iraq invasion seemed like a big deal at the time, a major accomplishment, and around the world as well.

CG: Yeah, but for only one day. What is required is the ability to constantly bring people out and not end it when there’s no popular response. You need to get the news story, and push the politicians to shift. We're up against the kind of new politics in which they didn't shift and we didn't come out with continual resistance, and that inability to resist played out in the 1990s when you have a Democratic president who was disappointing over and over, with no popular mobilization against his deregulation of the finance industry or his welfare reform initiative. 

DH: Is it possible to have a popular movement against a disappointing Democratic president?

Be sure to read the rest of this informative article at Alternet.org

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