Compassion for the Victims of Our Global Capitalist System

President-elect Obama pauses for one last look in the mirror before taking the oath of office on January 20, 2009. Imagine the possibilities if Obama—and all of us—could take a closer look at how we’ve internalized the distorted assumptions of the capitalist world. Credit: Pete Souza/White House

Too many liberals and progressives blame voter support for reactionary and ultra-conservative politics on the supposed mean-spiritedness, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, or stupidity of those who vote the other way. By slipping into this easy mindset, we fail to perceive the real yearning so many of us have for a life filled with love, caring, and generosity. This widespread desire to live in a society that promotes social justice, environmental sanity, and global solidarity was momentarily made visible when Obama was (mistakenly, unfortunately) perceived as one of the strongest champions of that yearning to have emerged since the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. pushed it out of U.S. politics. Too often the Left disses our potential supporters for not responding to us, instead of asking how we failed to support that deeper yearning.

Most of the time, such yearning is so quickly dismissed—both by the mainstream and by technocrats in the liberal world—as adolescent, utopian, or unrealistic that few politicians dare to legitimate it. Yet its absence from the public sphere is precisely what leads so many people to not even bother to vote. Many feel that to be taken seriously, they must confine such yearning to their personal and religious lives. Once that yearning does get pushed out of public consciousness, then indeed we all appear to each other to be narrowly concerned with only our own self-interest. And that, in turn, makes us despair of changing the world in the ways that most of us hope for privately.

Given the reality of this cycle of fear and despair, it would be far more accurate to view those who vote for ultra-conservative policies not only as perpetrators of the most sophisticated system of social control ever developed in human history, but also as victims of it. We are all caught up in this global capitalist system together.

Let’s start with the 2012 elections. Is there any well-known candidate who is challenging the assumption that there is no alternative to the competitiveness, self-seeking individualism, materialism, and militarism that are the inevitable accompaniments of global capitalism? No. Very few voters know about third parties. The Green Party is only invoked in passing, usually in order to blame it for ruining the 2000 election by taking votes away from Gore and thereby allowing the Supreme Court to install Bush as president. Given the way the media and the mainstream parties ignore the Green Party’s ideas, there is almost no way for ordinary citizens to hear anything meaningful about its vision. (Please see the interview with Jill Stein in this issue of Tikkun for more on that point.)

Progressives’ Frustrations with Obama

Why does it seem as if the election might be another neck and neck race? Why wouldn’t people feel moved to come out in even greater numbers than they did in 2008 to excitedly back the re-election of President Obama? Obama has had better access to the media and to the public than any other person in the country for four years—so why hasn’t he built up more enthusiasm? Well, when you start to ask people, as I have done, the following grievances seem to come up most frequently:

An Unclear Worldview

Obama has failed to articulate a liberal or progressive worldview and then justify his specific programs in accord with that worldview—thereby challenging the worldview of the Right. Instead, he has often justified his programs with recourse to right-wing ideas about the glories of global capitalism and the importance of America being the world’s “number one” competitor (an identity clearly at odds with being a true ally to the peoples of the world).

Catering to Wall Street

Obama made bailing out the banks and investment firms of Wall Street his first priority in dealing with the economic meltdown he inherited from the Bush administration. Progressives hoped that he would create a massive job program like the New Deal’s WPA; require banks to reduce their interest rates and renegotiate the terms of previous loans in order to save millions of people from mortgage foreclosures; insist on a “living wage” as the national minimum wage; prosecute the misdeeds of those on Wall Street who had violated existing laws; switch government spending away from the military-industrial complex and toward serving human needs, and allow the Bush tax cuts to expire. Instead, however, he made compromises that have continued to protect the huge incomes of the super-rich while the poorest have continued to suffer.

Abandonment of Single-Payer Health Care

Obama refused to allow his administration to even consider “Medicare for All” (a version of single-payer care) while discussing the potential options for reform.

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tags: Activism, Democracy, Politics & Society, Spiritual Politics, US Politics   
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