When The Machine Needs Fed: The Duopoly, Late Neoliberalism, and the Passion Plays of Power
Or, What Happens When The System Works As Designed
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It’s a lonely thing, sitting and watching the powerful sprint headfirst to the edge of a cliff. Even lonelier when you are chained to them and the very stability of your life depends on someone, anyone, stopping the madness.
The Great Debt Ceiling Hostage Crisis of 2023 is one of the lonelier and more demoralizing scenes in awhile, made even more depressing as it’s likely yet another chapter of yet another Biden-Trump electoral match-up. Our politics feel mired in mediocrity and self-destruction only because they are. And having been put in a hypervigilant state these last seven years, it starts to take a toll, especially now as a completely made-up situation has led to an unnecessary moment where we are facing an economic meltdown or the bitter-pill of painful cuts.
On one side, you have the Republican House of Representatives. Actually, that’s not even true. You have Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a hapless spokesperson for a body that is so discombobulated and discordant that to do a proper analysis of what the disparate factions are made up of or even what they are advocating for would take a lifetime or two to even begin scratching the surface. The House GOP is a fetid shit-storm of varied ideologies and anti-ideologies, a coterie of grifters and extremists and individuals who have either been charged by the Justice Department with fraud or else are waiting for the phone call. There are traditional Republicans toeing the line of the neoliberal project, fascist ideologues looking to incinerate the republic, wild-eyed loons looking for a good bad time, and a new breed of politician best embodied by Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, a dysfunctional breed desperate for headlines and attention while their own lives disintegrate around them, reflecting a larger societal crisis that we’re all enduring.
Finding a cohesive agenda is impossible. There simply is none. The Debt Ceiling fracas is just an opportunity that represents a convergence of sabotage, spite, and an opportunity for civic cruelty. McCarthy’s presence in negotiations is symbolic and every day that he returns to the bargaining table the message and ask gets worse and worse because there is no alternative. What this party represents now, besides the interest of their wealthy donors first and foremost, is an incomprehensible worldview that cannot be articulated. And, in this, they obscure the larger purpose: the intentional and relentless destruction of the social safety net.
What is playing out currently began before MTG had even made it out of kindergarten. Chances are if you interrogated her she’d be unable to name the issue, let alone explain her own role in propagating it. Beginning in the late-1970’s, America began to change. The flagging economy of that era provided an opening for neoliberals to seize control of the economic and political controls of the country and advocated for the near-total destruction of the New Deal consensus. Previously, the theory that held sway over both parties, save for the Far Right and conspiracy theorists and the corporatists who championed them, promoted the concept that a state’s responsibility was to oversee economic matters while ensuring that a robust social safety net was there for citizens who might otherwise fall through the cracks. With the era of stagflation, and eventually the rise of Neoliberalism as the emerging consensus, that social safety net was viciously attacked and winnowed down, opening the door for extreme corporate and personal profit while sacrificing the hard-won gains of the 20th century.
The Republican playbook is crafted around this process while obscuring the material reasons. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on “sustained growth” has led to a continual eradication of these social programs and the GOP sells this to its voters as a righting of a wrong, a hard-but-necessary correction that confronts “cheats,” the “lazy,” and others who are attempting to “get one over” on “hardworking Americans.” By stoking the aggrievement of white Americans and their belief that people of color and immigrants might take what is theirs, playing cultural fears like an instrument, and constantly feeding a conspiracy theory that “the Deep State” is an evil body with intentions of destroying them and their families, they make palatable the final eradication of the social safety net. As we’ll continue to discuss, this is something many in the GOP are explicitly aware of, while many are not. Some believe the ideology that makes this possible and others know full and well what is at the heart of their project.
In this way, the GOP is an expression of an economic system that demands a lessening of standards of living in order to continue operating with “sustainable growth” and to continue to consolidate wealth and power. This is why the GOP is so morally repugnant. It represents aspects of this system that are indefensible save for those who are profiting the most and those who are conditioned to champion the very system that destroys their lives.
The Democratic Party is more complicated. With the GOP the pathology is all right there. The hypocrisy, the self-hatred, the projection, the white patriarchal neurosis. To watch it play out is instructional. With Democrats, the deeper meaning gets lost in conflicting principles and outcomes. While espousing the important of liberal democracy, voting rights are continually assaulted without much in the way of recourse. While reacting to the overturning of Roe V. Wade with thunderous condemnation, there still isn’t anything in the way of a proposed plan to nationalize a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. While casting a side-eye to Ron DeSantis and other Republican governors turning their states into laboratories of authoritarianism, the criticism remains rhetorical.
And in the debt ceiling crisis, negotiation is cover for both wilful and unintentional capitulation.
Like the GOP, there is a wide disparity of awareness within the Democratic Party. Their ideology, or story, is that this is a body that represents the belief that inclusion and diversity and other aspects of liberal culture are wildly important, but that almost all progress and almost all answers should come through the perpetuation of free-markets and their guidance. Government intervention is relegated to sweeping up the destructive consequences of neoliberalism - such as the 2008 Financial Meltdown - and when the apparatus is allowed to act it is handled through technocratic tinkering and means-testing, making sure that social safety nets might exist, but mostly in theory or appearance.
Democrats span the political spectrum from conservative to center-left. Leftist ideas and figures are relegated to the extremes, and even the center-left is used to stand-in as the polarized twin of Far Right extremism. Maintaining the economy and exercising the “will of the market,” all of it explicitly anti-human in its operation and based primarily on successful exploitation, is the priority of the majority and one of the few ways an intentionally-undermined government can act in any given situation. What Democrats do, however, is supply a gesture of remorse.
They wish they could do something about it, but there are rules and norms and institutions. Never mind that those rules and norms and institutions were all explicitly designed, from the very beginning, to privilege a minority of the population. Or, more specifically, the same type of white, wealthy men who are still served by the government and its rules and norms and institutions.
The Democratic Party, for decades now, has continued to serve these interests while giving the populace someone to vote for and donate their money to and focus their energy on that at least expresses a frustration that echoes public sentiment as things get worst for most and way, way better for a minuscule minority. All of it is hidden behind a useful facade of we wish it was different or hopefully in the future we’ll have the opportunity. Meanwhile, that future is forever a distant horizon. It doesn’t matter if there’s a tie in the Senate or a supermajority, the moment of truth is always up ahead.
We’re seeing that play out once more. Biden negotiating with the GOP while ignoring other potential fixes - necessary to point out, in all of this, that the Supreme Court is once more playing its most important function that it has played out for centuries now: a backstop that enforces those rules and norms and institutions - only makes it a foregone conclusion that eventually the proposed social safety net cuts and work requirements and spending freezes will be imposed. Eventually a “bipartisan” deal will be worked out that makes life worse for most and way, way better for a minuscule minority. It is the only way the neoliberal status quo can continue, that continual cutting of the social safety net until it disappears completely. And, even then, there will be more and more pain required. Biden will express his disappointment while moderates hail his ability to “make tough choices.”
The duopoly will roll on, continuing to serve the interests of a market and an economy which has nothing to do with our own experience of the world save for how they reflect the successful exploitation of all of us. The parties will continue this neurotic dance as the political spectrum pushes further and further right, leaving even the moderate center as seemingly “leftist” until the notion of a left, once again, disappears completely and a new horizon emerges.
After all, this is what happens when you continue doing the same thing. You get the same results. And each of these fictional crises presents a new opportunity for the situation to worsen or at least progress in the wrong direction. The veneer of political theater obscures a larger trend and consensus in the same way culture war clashes over which beer you’re supposed to drink or which streaming movie is representative of your personal politics represent a clash that is only occurring within consumer circles and the imaginations of voters. And the cumulative result is that these cuts keep happening, government continues being corrupted, and vulnerable communities like people of color, immigrants, and gay/trans Americans are targeted as the wealthy use them to forward their own agendas.
And, in the end, the only strategy to survive being chained to the madmen sprinting toward the edge of the cliff is to unchain yourself.