Why Calling for Universal Benefits Is a Realistic Political Strategy

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By Marina Bart (formerly aab) a writer and former public relations consultant, who thinks and writes about many things, including political economy, culture, and communication.

This is a companion piece to “Why Anti-War Purity Tests Are Not Sound Political Strategy”.

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If you are not at the top of the food chain, the United States is failing for you. Most citizens don’t have enough money to fix their car or get decent health care even under the modest reforms passed by Democrats. Most workers have not had a real increase in their wages in years, and their share of national wealth has fallen. Millions lost their homes in the Crash, and millions more lost their household wealth and were never made whole. In large parts of the country, life expectancy is decreasing, and in some places, it approaches Third World status. Whether Democrats or Republicans officially run the country, the results are the same. To distract us from their looting, elites set ordinary citizens against each other along identity lines: man vs. woman, young vs. old, black vs. white, evangelist vs. transgendered. Somehow, with all the fights about values and rights, the only right that matters now, the right to capital, continues its ever-spiraling, ever-tightening ascent, leaving quaint notions of equality, justice and freedom behind.

The old world is dying before our eyes. The only question is, what world will next be born?

All I ask of you, gentle readers, is that you consider the possibility that our broken country presents an opportunity to make positive and lasting change. It’s not a guarantee. It’s an opportunity, an opening. I’m about to propose something that will look on its face as if it is too simple to work. Maybe it won’t work. But it’s a strategy that offers a great many benefits. Like Archimedes’ lever, its simple appearance belies its capacity to deliver power.

And this is what is needed to make change: power. Not righteousness or rightness. Not virtue alone. Only mass solidarity, built on the enduring rock of community and equality, can deliver the force necessary to dislodge our corrupt, parasitic elite from their entrenched positions of power. We have been trained and conditioned to view one another as undeserving and unworthy. But if we can break those shackles chaining our minds, we can break the economic shackles the neoliberal project has twisted around us. It will be difficult. But isn’t it worth trying?

Lambert has written frequently of his belief that universal, direct, material benefits (in short form, “universal benefits”) should be the focus of all change agents moving forward. Yves and I have both added our voices to this position. There are numerous advantages to doing this. For now, here are the highlights:

  • Americans have been suffering and dying in record numbers for a while. This is a moral issue. If you think someone’s personal belief system, life style or geographic location renders them unfit to live, you can stop reading now. I will not persuade you to my cause. Have we really sunk so low as a culture that being born in the Midwest is deemed worthy of death? Those people the liberal elite has been teaching its followers are deplorable are often the same people fighting the wars the liberal elite insists are necessary. They fueled the industrial machine that enabled America to build its wealth and power. How are they more immoral that the people living large in New York and DC who enrich themselves off this same system, without ever having broken a sweat? They are my fellow citizens. Remember that quaint notion? They deserve to live.
  • Because people are so very, very desperate, because the system is now so broken, people all over the country are open to policies and alliances that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. There are people in red states standing up and demanding that everybody get health care from the government. The corporate media wants you to ignore those voices. They only want you to hear liberals telling you conservative voters are cretins, and then they stoke the outrage machine by quoting whichever Republican Congressman said the most cruel and selfish thing that day – as if the man saying, “Rape is a pre-existing condition,” is really any worse than Nancy Pelosi, who knows better, but who took great pains to make sure that American citizens still do not have their health care guaranteed, and millions go without. But that openness needs to be nurtured. We need to reach out a hand to these potential allies. And in that hand, there’s need to be something real, something they need, something material. That is how you prove all the propaganda wrong. This is the most fundamental way human beings build fellowship. We break bread together. We show that we care and that we see these other human beings as being equal to ourselves in value by sharing our bounty.
  • Neoliberalism has relentlessly destroyed solidarity across classes and demographics, until our body politic has been reduced to dismembered fragments and scraps. Neoliberealism posits that we are all operating atomistically through markets, which makes every one of us each other’s competitor and enemy. That’s unnatural. That is not how humans evolved. We evolved by cooperating. We have a hardwired sense of justice. That’s not even a human trait; it’s becoming clear that lots of other animals also intrinsically understand and desire justice and fairness. The only way to rebuild that solidarity is by sidestepping the identity values cage that has been built around us. We do that by focusing like a laser on universal, direct, material benefits. If you are a pastor in Mississippi or a pickle maker in Brooklyn, you get the same exact benefit, because you are in the same status category: you are a citizen.
  • I believe the only force capable of standing up to capital is the government. But, Lambert wrote in an email, “40 years of neoliberal sabotage have left many people deeply mistrustful of government as such.” That’s not because they’re idiots. That’s because government has, in fact, been made increasingly ineffective and destructive by neoliberal “wrecking crews” in the service of their project. We need to show people that government actually can do good things for them. Along the same lines, and also as per Lambert, the left needs a win. If you want people to drag themselves out to do ANYTHING beyond the exhausting struggle to survive, you need to show them that your approach will work to make their lives better. People have been indoctrinated, trained and beaten (in some cases, literally) into despairing passivity. Because the liberal Democratic leadership has been posing as leftists and claiming that their policies are virtuous and helpful, many people have decided, wisely, that politicians’ words should be ignored. (The Republicans are also exploitative liars, of course. But they’re not pretending to offer broad social benefits.) That leaves deeds. The left has the opportunity to show that its theory of change and value actually works. Universal health care has the potential to be the tip of a very effective flying wedge, that can cut through the lies about what’s possible, who’s on whose side, and what this country can be.
  • One of the elements of neoliberalism that reinforces its control and weakens opposition is that people are just too frightened, deprived, and time-constrained to act collectively. If you have a job, you may not have the freedom to determine how you spend your non-working time. Can’t protest that way. Or you may have a job with decent health care, and you’re terrified that if your boss finds out you protested, you’ll be fired. Students could be expelled for demonstrating and immediately plunged into a hellscape where they’re paying back loans for a degree they weren’t allowed to complete. Right now, speech, like every other “freedom,” is really only protected for those with the money to buy it. One of the reasons we’re advocating prioritizing benefits now inside of tackling the military industrial complex, is that the former is a much lighter lift than the latter. If you want people joining you to try to end imperialism peacefully, you need to heal them first. That’s how you get the numbers, energy and enthusiasm necessary to tackle the largest military in human history.
  • Finally, as I head towards the other major element of the strategy, every universal program we force through deprives the major political parties of bribes contributions – particularly the Democratic Party, which in its current incarnation exists to build elaborate systems to facilitate rent-seeking and gatekeeping to pour money into the arms of its affiliates in the donor class, like banking and health insurance, which then then funds the Democratic Party’s elite control over the party. Every universal benefit we pass starves and weakens our enemy.

So this isn’t just a matter of picking one faction’s preferred goal over another’s. The point of prioritizing universal programs first is that by doing so, we create a powerful multiplier effect that will enable we the people to smash through the barricades that have been erected between us and the government that should, but currently does not, serve us. No other policy sequencing delivers this. If you disagree, make your counter case.

That brings me to the other arm of this pincer strategy. Like universal benefits, it has several elements and significant multiplier effects. But expressed most simply: the Clinton/Rubin Democratic Party is our enemy. We must purge Clinton loyalists from every level of the party, entirely and utterly. This is not because the Republican Party is “better.” It is because it is the Democratic Party which pretends to be of the left, and pretends to be nurturing, and has failed as a governing entity.

Neoliberal New Democrats have never been popular. Bill Clinton never got 50% of the vote. Barack Obama won primarily by opposing the Clintons and using a set of unearned and false identity markers to signal to voters that he was not a New Democrat – until after he was elected. Obama’s presidency hasn’t just resulted in additional immiseration to the vulnerable demographic groups who voted him into power. The corporatist Democrats’ governing approach has led to the party withering at the federal and state level until it is functionally not a national party. It is weak. But as weak as it is, it can still currently do its most important job, which is the box up the left and keep it out of power.

Because the two major parties have spent over a hundred years embedding themselves like ticks in the electoral system, creating thousands of obstacles from the official (automatic ballot access) to the informal (corporate media acting as a propaganda arm of the party while silencing left opposition and voices), to the illegal (using their positions inside government to suppress, rip and flip votes for their party), malevolent courtiers like Tom Perez can just sit there, taking up space, mouthing platitudes and cashing checks. As long as there’s money and status in controlling the Democratic Party, these people, who demonstrably do not care about anything but money and status, will continue control the party’s valuable assets, blocking insurgents inside the party, and undermining third parties that attempt to take them down. Whether you believe only a new party can deliver justice and democracy, or you believe only one of the legacy parties can be used to achieve this goal, you should want these locusts and parasites weakened and driven into the wilderness to starve.

And the great thing is, we don’t all have to believe the same things and do the same things to achieve that goal. All we have to agree to is this simple idea: Vote against Clinton Democrats. Everywhere. Every level of government. Every electoral stage – including the general election. That is key. Whether you start a new party or join an existing third party or work inside the Democratic party at the state or local level, as long as you give the corporate Democrats no money and no votes, you are weakening capital’s hold over the party. While some donors are going to be sophisticated enough in their corruption that they’ll fund the corporate Democrats to blockade the left to the bitter end, the party depends on a whole lot of less tactically cynical money.

A withering Democratic Party will get less money. The individuals inside the party are in it for the status and money. Take that away, and retirement or a lobbying job makes more sense for the inviduals themselves. We want them to be faced with having to choose between acting in their self-interest and maintaining their position in the party. Fewer votes means less money, and less money means fewer votes. They’re mutually reinforcing pincers.

Another element of this, which will have to wait for another day for in-depth discussion of its multiplier impact, is that a major benefit the Clintonite Democratic establishment offers its courtier class — its affluent donors and media allies as well as its functionaries and officials — is virtue. Democrats are branded as the “good” party. They “help” people. That is another reason why a two-pronged strategy of (1) pushing universal benefits and (2) refusing to vote for Clinton Democrats is so powerful: by demanding life- and dignity-saving universal policies that have worked elsewhere for decades, we take the Democratic establishment’s comforter of virtue away from them. We leave them with nothing to offer most of their donors and allies: no power, no status, no means to self-enrich, AND no soothing myth of goodness and love to sing themselves to sleep with.

So this is stage one of the strategy, in a nutshell: 

  • Prioritize universal direct material benefits
  • Never vote for Clinton Democrats 

This is a strategy that puts saving millions of lives front and center, energizes a potentially status quo-shattering coalition, and enables the many, many factions of the currently weak and disorganized left to to achieve a united goal without having to consolidate behind one pathway or approach. That also means it will be harder for the forces of the status quo to stop it.

Like Archimedes’ lever, the fulcrum of universal benefits can deliver the coalition force necessary to dislodge the corporatists, first from the Democratic Party, and then from government. Simple things can work.

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