On my retirement from political activism
By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / March 30, 2010
Last Sunday, the “health care reform” bill passed in the House of Representatives with most Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans voting against. Did you notice that stocks in pharmaceuticals and the health insurance industries both climbed the next day?
This comprehensive health care reform is none of the above. The struggle for its passage was pure theater on several levels. Most Democrats really don’t support it and most Republicans really don’t oppose it. Most Democrats would prefer a public option, Medicare being allowed to negotiate drug prices, re-importation of drugs from Canada and the like, but there aren’t enough votes independent of corporate lobbyists to pass any of that, so they opt for a charade with frills.
The Republicans know that the chief beneficiaries of this legislation are Big Pharma and the health insurance industry, but they don’t want their fingerprints on it for purely partisan political reasons. They do want another excuse to rally their legions by railing at Democrats, who in this case happen to be taking the lead as corporate lackeys.
It’s got plenty of passion, drama and irony, but it’s sound and furry signifying very little to do with better health care. The invective is primarily posturing to gain political advantage and the wealth and power associated with being the favored capitalist class toady of the moment.
Our president, who I worked hard to elect and who repeatedly called himself a “progressive” when he spoke to Austin rallies in 2008, is at least vastly exaggerating about what a great reform this is. Contrary to what you might hear, it does not significantly change the health care system in the one manner that matters most, shifting more of it into the public sector.
It does not establish health care as a right. Instead, buying private health insurance is established as a legal obligation. Meanwhile, Dennis Kucinich, after much pontification, does his usual roll over act in compliance with the party leadership.
The principal outrage is that now, thanks to Democrats, for the first time the federal government will mandate that you have to buy the products of the health insurance industry or face the wrath of the IRS. It will be illegal for you not to give 8% of your annual income to the insurance cartel in perpetuity.
In some countries, the government takes over corrupt and failing industries. In America, the corrupt and failing industrialists take over big slices of government. The Republicans are quite correct to question whether the mandate provision of the health care legislation is unconstitutional and the proto-fascist majority on the “Supreme” Court they created may rule in their favor, especially given that there seems to be very little precedent.
The overriding conclusion from all this is that our federal and state governments are almost totally in the pocket of the corporate capitalist ruling class, now more so than ever. U.S. politics has become a question about how one should relate to squabbles within the ruling class. Corporate ownership of the political system has expanded over our lifetimes and now its control is so complete that U.S. democracy is irretrievably corrupted.
It is profoundly naïve to expect the federal government to do anything truly progressive related to the country’s economic functioning within the confines of this hegemony. It is not realistic to think that you or any combination of non-ruling class individuals can have any serious impact on U.S. politics above a local level. Without access to major capital and status among the big bourgeoisie, you’re not a player.
With the recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to contribute unlimited amounts to political campaigns, U.S. democracy is dead as a doornail, the coffin is welded shut and buried deep. You can spend all your remaining days calling your congressional representative, demonstrating, donating to progressive candidates, and writing letters to the editor, but your efforts will have little positive effect except perhaps on yourself.
About all that could be realistically expected is to keep our intellectual tradition alive. You may counter that once we did make a significant difference. True or not, that was then and this is now.
There are some areas where there will be positive change because such changes are not contradictory to capitalist domination. Gay rights is a good example and hardly insignificant. Now that “health care reform” has passed, Obama may even take pen in hand and do what he promised to do and what he should have done already by signing an executive order ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Thanks to the great coming out that we’ve seen over the past few decades, no attitudinal trend is more bullish than the growing acceptance of the gay/lesbian community.
Immigration reform will take place because the immigrants are coming anyway, capitalists like cheap labor, and both parties want the ever-growing Latino vote. The “drug war” will be diminished by the decriminalization of marijuana, because its continuation only fuels drug cartels, destabilizes nearby countries with piles of corpses, and deprives established capitalists the opportunity to reap profits legally.
Besides, in this brave new world, pot might fill the role of “soma.” As Huxley fittingly said of soma, it has “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol [with] none of their defects.” Who cares if we live in a country where the government is a wholly owned subsidiary of the capitalist class and operates primarily in its service, at least we can get high.
In a tangentially related matter, the left in France just drubbed Sarkozy’s rightists in regional elections and then staged a nationwide strike in protest of his policies. This is occurring on the eve of my wife and I blowing years of savings by going to France for two months in celebration of my recovery from what medical authorities assured me was an incurable disease.
The question always arises when visiting France: why don’t we just stay there? It’s a question I’ve struggled with for years and the answer remains unchanged. Sally still has a rewarding career, but only here. We now have two darling grandchildren living here and our Guatemalan textile business is here and resists transplantation. In addition, there are the nearly 50 years of accumulated Austin friends. We could never be so much a part of another community.
The quandary is how to continue living in the increasingly repugnant U.S. and at the same time maintain one’s sanity and low blood pressure — without being angry about one travesty or another on a daily basis. One element of my solution is to retire from political activism and diminish my focus on political concerns. Turn off the cable pundits. Stop reading leftist blogs (except this one!). No more demonstrations of less than 10,000. No more “organizing,” my activism relegated to the occasional documentation of errant thoughts.
I used to think that political activism was the ideal existential raison d’etre. But with my growing awareness of its futility, for me if not for others, that will no longer suffice. I’m 66 and it’s time to pass the torch, which in my hands now only smolders.
I credit Barack Obama with bringing me to these conclusions. We worked hard for him. We helped lead his campaign in our suburban precinct in this southern state and he carried it by 2 to 1. We drank champagne with a house full of neighbors at his inauguration. It has been precipitously down hill ever since, illusions crashing right and left.
Number one on my list of expectations for his administration was health care reform; one that included an expanded public sector. Instead, we got an expanded private sector, with which our relationship is now obligatory. You can no longer be denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition. Instead, such individuals will be sent to high-risk pools where, between premiums and the attendant costs, “coverage” will be unaffordable for most eligible Americans.
Their version of universal health care is to universalize bad “coverage” by “mandating” people to make lifetime continuous payments to private insurance companies. Talk about your subsidized industry! This pro-capitalist, private sector fealty on Obama’s part is hardly new, his having begun his term by exceeding even Bush’s generosity to Wall Street.
And speaking of exceeding Bush, we now have more troops fighting in more (mostly Muslim) countries than we did during the Bush II administration. I naively expected some subtle diminution of American militarism. No such luck.
But how about his historic break with Israel’s Likud? Talk’s cheap and Obama is mainly talk.
The fall of Obama has been the icing on the cake.
Some of us had lunch with Bill Ayers last week and, unlike Obama, we are all proud to call him our friend. He continues to have a thoughtful analysis of the historical situation. He observed that promising political activism was taking place among the rubble of Detroit. People are growing — vegetables and community. They don’t focus on pleading for their bankrupt government to take action. They take action among themselves by building local collectives in food, transportation, and security.
However much potential this approach might have to prolong our survival, it also has its drawbacks. In Guatemala, when the police take a bribe and let some career criminal out of jail, the locals have been known to hang and/or incinerate the alleged miscreant in front of the police station along with a few police cars. So much for due process. But, it is only on these most basic levels that one can maintain a realistic political identity.
Because my incurable disease disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared and my VA doctor and debate partner says it might return, my motto has become “do it now.” It’s time for me to get to work on that “bucket list” with a vengeance. Political activism is notable in its absence. It does not remain self-actualizing enough and I’m a privileged white guy with pensions, socialist health care, and choices.
So I’m choosing grandchildren and gardening, Antigua, Guatemala and Lake Atitlán, classic literature and friends, Sally and Paris, and compliance with the dictates of my personal trainer, Birdie Poundpooch; indulgences that will have to suffice during my remaining years of kicking out the jams.
[David P. Hamilton has been a political activist in Austin since the early Seventies when he worked with SDS and wrote for The Rag, Austin’s underground newspaper.]
Also see “Alice Embree on Political Activism: Carry it On” by Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / April 6, 2010