(Swans - July 16, 2012) The candidates for the upcoming election in the United States cannot be any more similar, despite their perceived racial, religious, and ideological differences. Both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger are Harvard men, the former from Harvard Law and the latter from Harvard Business, a fact that should give pause to anyone thinking that a Harvard degree is in itself a qualification for the presidency (George W. Bush had a Harvard degree) or even qualification to lead a business, as Harvard MBAs, Harvard credit swindlers, and Harvard derivatives hucksters on Wall Street nearly steered the world's economy off a cliff back in 2007. I've been to Harvard many times during my nearly decade-long stay in Boston back in the '90s, and despite the beauty of the campus and its intellectual tradition, it is still capable of producing flawed graduates who nonetheless "achieve" (maybe "inherit" is the right word here for some of its graduates) positions of influence because they went to Harvard.
Both candidates, despite their promises to help out the middle class, reign in millions of dollars in contributions from Wall Street institutions. Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and J.P. Morgan are top contributors to Obama (as is Harvard University), (1) whereas Mitt Romney apparently has overtaken the Obama campaign in the amounts of Wall Street donations: the Bank of America, according to the Huffington Post, graced Romney with nearly $77k in the ending 2011 quarter while only donating nearly 15% of that amount to the Obama campaign. (2) Citigroup has also showered cash on the Romney campaign to the tune of nearly 200,000 as opposed to a meager $3842 to the Obama campaign in the same fundraising interval. So neither of these candidates' overtures to the middle class should be taken seriously because they both represent corporate interests -- in particular, Wall Street -- and neither of them can be counted on to initiate real financial reform as well as encourage economic growth. (3)
The title of this piece is a play on philosopher Richard Rorty's 1992 article in Harper's Magazine, "For a More Banal Politics," an article by one of America's preeminent pragmatists, (4) which struck a triumphalist pose towards Western intellectuals who criticize the failings of capitalism because, considering the time in which Rorty was writing, Communism came crashing down along with the Berlin Wall and since then there has not been any functioning alternative to capitalism: Rorty reminds us that there has never been a functioning rival economic system of capitalism. But I am uncertain as to whether Rorty could have foreseen a time when our politics (which he confused in the article too many times with our economic system) was saturated with corporate money -- a corruption of our democracy. In politics a candidate wins on not only the strength of his or her ideas but also his/her record of implementing those ideas to the benefit of the majority and not by how many ads they can run about how the other candidate banged somebody else's wife.
Rorty's suggestion that the longevity of a system is a mark of its efficiency or correctness was also off the mark. (5) Capitalism always can bear modifications: from going from a peasant's wage to a living wage, from eliminating discrimination and harassment on the job, to enacting guidelines to make sure consumers are not harmed by products. Capitalism practiced without such modifications would be unsuitable for our modern sensibilities, although some corporations still try to evade them by outsourcing labor to foreign countries that do not respect workers' rights.
Contrary to Rorty's notion of capitalism as a working model that has lasted for centuries, we must distinguish this notion of capitalism from the "free market," for the free market is an ideal, an eighteenth century, utilitarian conception by which the fewer restrictions on the movement and trends of capital and labor, the better off the majority of people who live in that system will be. We have seen in the previous presidential administration the results of furthering that approach: stagnant job growth and lax regulation of the banking industry. Rorty believed that as a system guaranteeing the production of goods and services at a relatively competitive price, capitalism, conceived in this manner, has been and is an efficient mechanism for providing these things. (6) But the marketplace has and still placed restrictions upon persons of a different race and gender (e.g., recall the days of segregated restaurants of the past in the American south, and the fact that today women still earn less than men for performing the same job) and our debate on immigration masks our resentment over illegal immigrants who would willingly work at wages less than minimum in this country.
But most importantly, our presidential elections (congressional elections too) have been completely awash in corporate money and wealthy donors tied to corporate interests. Rorty might claim that in our democratic system candidates need money to trumpet their message, but there are public funds for candidates which they decline for corporate dollars. As long as corporations can freely influence elections, they will also use their vast resources to influence political figures to enact legislation on their behalf while socializing their losses.
So no one should be confused about the choice that Americans have this coming election: where one candidate sometimes pretends to rail against Wall Street as he freely takes Wall Street money, while the other uses his "credentials" as the past leader of a Wall Street firm to argue that he is qualified for the presidency. Neither of these candidates should be taken seriously for any of the policy proposals they have to help the middle class, because essentially their proposals will inevitably involve throwing money to businesses to encourage job growth. Enough of the trickle down economics. I'm even sure that Rorty's vision of capitalism ever endorsed providing capital to businesses to encourage hiring when all they do is either sit on it, gamble it away on risky ventures (hello J.P. Morgan), and look to see if the Greeks will leave the eurozone to determine whether they will start spending and hiring again.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)
4. Pragmatists, the story goes, are philosophers who reject the idea that reality should be an object of philosophical speculation. What is true is what works or what people are doing, and therefore truth does not, contrary to what old fashioned philosophers believe, correspond to a set of transcendent, universal body of ideas that through some sort of special Platonic insight or objective inspection of sentences a person can come to know. Rorty's vision of capitalism as a long-working mechanism does not even mesh with the tradition of earlier pragmatists such as John Dewey, one of the intellectual leaders of the progressivist movement, who promoted unions and social justice. (back)