Guest post today, by my good friend and superb writer, Bill Neil.

The old timers out there might remember Bill as author of “GreenGram”, written while Bill was head of Conservation at NJ Audubon, before they went “entrepreneurial” and corporate. Bill’s NJ work at Audubon was a victim of some of what Chris Hedges writes about in his book “Death of the Liberal Class”.

In this post, Bill absolutely nails the deeper meaning of the government shutdown.


Dear Citizens and Elected Officials:

As our governing crisis has unfolded, I’ve been increasingly troubled by the largely passive response of the Democratic Party to what I see as a hostile attack upon democracy and the federal government itself.  Citizens, not yet in the streets, who assert that those governing “need to grow up,” or that the Republican Right is just plain “nuts,” are missing the significance of what is happening.  Yes, as I write, the Democratic backbone seems to be stiffening in the response of Senator Harry Reid, rejecting what the Right has offered, and declaring no compromise until the sabotage and hostage taking end, but the resolution of the crisis still looks to depend upon time and patience – and slowly growing public anger at the costs.  I don’t know if there is a “face saving” way out at this point for Republicans, and I’m not sure that they deserve one even it if could be found.

This has led me to begin exploring the constitutional as well as the everyday operative meanings of the terms “Treason and Sedition.”  Constitutionally, both words are pretty tightly tied to advocating violence to overturn the government, and treason is linked to working in conjunction with, or on behalf of, a foreign government.   Neither would seem to directly address the sabotage of the democratic process itself, or the economic destruction of the government, which is really what is occurring in the early fall of 2013. Yet aside from violent overthrow, I can’t think of too many things which might be as destructive of our system than preventing its funding, the very fuel for its operations, thereby directly impairing its ability to function.  This threatens direct economic harm and a form of violence against millions here, and abroad too, because of the dollar’s role as the “reserve currency” in the world economy, what economist Barry Eichengreen has called its “Exorbitant Privilege.”   Thus the chain reaction of impairment goes beyond just “our government,” it has world- wide ramifications since so many citizens of the world put their faith in United States’ bonds and other Treasury instruments.

If a case can be made for a charge of treason against the Republican Right’s leaders in their attacks, it would be that for years now, and especially since the great financial crisis of 2008, there has been much talk, and some action, by leading world economic powers towards dethroning the U.S. dollar’s eminent position, and to substituting a basket of currencies instead.  This basket always includes the Chinese Yuan, and the Euro, and usually four or five other leading ones.  Most observers see this as the likely outcome, a more likely one than having the Chinese currency replace the dollar, or a Euro solo.  It’s hard to think of a better way to undermine ourselves and aid the economic competition than to push the government into a debt funding crisis.  I do think Martin Wolfe of the Financial Times is correct: no one can predict with any certainty what chaos in financial markets would result from a US debt legitimacy crisis, but only fools (and balanced budget ideologues) would take this course to find out.    He sees this as a form of American self-destruction; unbelievable, but it is unfolding before our eyes.

I see it, however, as an internal, procedural coup, by blackmail, a “Samson Strategy,” of threatening to pull it all down if one doesn’t get one’s way.  Democracy cannot function under such assumptions and procedures.

The Republican Right has found a vulnerable seam in our system of government where there is no clear-cut legal counter-attack, unless better legal minds than mine can find something that I couldn’t in what is sketched out above.

Absent their assistance, I have come to favor the charge of Sedition over Treason, although the history of that term in the US is not a pleasant one to contemplate, because it has so easily tipped over into a legal “gag rule” against dissent.  Yet I would argue that Sedition, because of its domestic emphasis, better fits the current course of actions inside the Congress.   I would further argue that its linkage to violence might have made sense in the past centuries of armed insurrections, but in contemporary life, most of the insurrectionary movements against governments have been by massive peaceful demonstrations.  It is instead economic “violence” that has replaced hand held weapons, tools now wielded in the form of boycotts, blockades and “sanctions,” usually aimed at isolated nations deemed uncooperative and beyond the pale.  But there are, of course, other applications and permutations, and today’s capitalism is full of, and skilled in,  employing economic coercion upon citizens to maintain its brand of labor discipline –  its paltry minimum wage, its undermining of labor power, its hold over the economics’ profession.

Now the Republican Right’s economic warfare – it’s blackmail, no getting around it –  to shut down the government and to destroy its international credit worthiness, has directly surfaced inside the very heart of our democratic processes, our legislative mechanisms.  This is a form of “leverage” that a democracy, however flawed, cannot allow.

It might seem a bit incongruous for someone on the left to be rushing into the breach to defend the current state of democracy in a United States that I have, with good reasons, been deeply critical of.  I cannot, therefore,  ignore the fuller historical context –  that American democracy is already in trouble on many other fronts: great economic inequality; a failure of the parties to represent the bottom third (or higher) of the nation; the flood of money into politics, and the dominance of corporate power over many  existing processes; the lure of the revolving door to the private sector,  tempting Congress and its staffs, and the regulatory agencies, thereby further undermining the legitimacy of existing institutions; the National Security State towering over foreign affairs and gathering up all  communications, but leaving citizens in the dark as to what is actually taking place between our nation and other nation.

I close this theme with the response of Republican Representative Darrell Issa on September 28th to a reporter’s question about  strategy, one the reporter said he felt was bound to fail: “How dare you presume a failure…, “ with the “how dare you” repeated four times… here at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/09/29/1242389/-CBS-News-Darrell-Issa-Blows-Up-at-Reporter-Over-Looming-Government-Shutdown-Video#

This to me, the tone and the phrasing from a Republican committee chairman,  the wealthiest member in Congress, and of course, a successful businessman, is a near perfect picture of the relationship, an imperial one, between the people, and a mere member of the press, and those who are to represent them.  Now Issa may stand one-to-one with his own House District’s feelings, but I’ve heard that voice and tone so many times and in so many others contexts that it now familiar by wrote.  It’s about who has “standing,” and who doesn’t, and Issa has made his standing very clear.  Issa’s voice is the voice of the 18th Century aristocrat policing the boundaries upon an encounter with an impertinent commoner who has “overstepped” his place.

It is today, unfortunately, far too often the voice of the entrepreneurial “producer” denying that any other human activity has a significant standing in the grand panorama of civil society.  It is a voice as far removed from the society and the substance of the “first Republican,” Abraham Lincoln, as one could imagine.  But Lincoln’s world is gone; before the 19th century was concluded, the structure of the economy had become something which would have horrified him, even as he, by necessity to save the Union, used bonded governmental debt and “fiat currency” to help save it.

The ground upon which today’s Right has chosen to fight, though, makes much ideological sense for them: in the foreground the immediate cause is the President’s health care plan, but what they really are after is a tremendous scaling back of the “state,” (setting military matters aside) which they believe they can achieve by brinksmanship over raising the debt ceiling.  Please note the smiles, confidence and utter glee of both Newt Gingrich and Dick Morris on CNN (Monday evening, Sept. 30th) stating that they look forward to the debt ceiling battle as one the Right can win.  And I am fearful that by the time it reaches its climax around Oct. 15-17th or so, Americans will once again see the “grand bargain,” the further shredding of what remains of the Social Contract from the New Deal, put back on the table by the President as the only way to resolve the crisis.

Stepping back a bit further, notice how the Right, win, lose or draw, has controlled the national discussion.  Heading into Labor Day, and until the Syrian crisis intervened, there was considerable press coverage on the perilous state of the labor markets, the fast-food strike, raising the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour.  Have you heard those topics recently?  It looks to me that the health care plan may eventually founder by simply having underestimated how much its options will cost individuals who can’t meet their current non-medical bills; the co-pays and the 20-40% cost shifts to consumers,  will bankrupt many of the working poor when triggered, as Dr. Margaret Flowers argued recently to Dean Baker on The Real News Network … I doubt the subsidies will bridge the gaps…the Democrats, so true to their form since 1984, have forgotten about the 28 million Americans earning less than $9.89 per hour, to whom those costs are out of reach.

Of FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” from 1944, where “the right to adequate medical care” was listed sixth out of eight rights?   Democrats won’t go near it. FDR correctly posited the “First Right” in that Second Bill to be the one to a job at decent wages…But the current health care bill is the law of the land, and deserves a chance to succeed, fail or be corrected on its actual performance over the next year or so.

At its deepest ideological level, this is a struggle over the role and scope of the state in the modern economy, and the very definition of that modern economy.  Since the Right believes in a minimalist state built upon the assumption that the private sector solves all problems for us in all spheres of life, they are perfectly willing to take this gamble: the collapse of the current state is not a bad thing.  They are very, very wrong, but the Democratic Center shares enough of that view to have long considered the “grand bargain” – and I think they might again.   But right now the Center is faced with a hard to hide “fiscal gun” to the head and a barely disguised disruption of the long standing internal rules of American democracy, so they can’t give in  – right away, at least.

A modern understanding of the national debt, from a left of center point of view, is two full historical, evolutionary stages away from where the Right is.  They vehemently deny Keynes and his understandings, and it goes without saying they would reject the emerging “Modern Monetary Theory” even more vigorously, as James Galbraith’s sermons on the federal debt and deficit were seen, in 2010 and 2011, as incomprehensible when not labeled outright “heresy.”

These are veritable religious matters for the Right, matters of economic theology, and they are counting on that old “kitchen table” common sense of the American public to view the national debt just like mounting household debt.  They will try to glide over the technicalities involved in raising the debt ceiling to get to the broader objective of the sinfulness of expanding that debt at all (even if that’s not what is going on in raising the “ceiling.”) .  It is a grand morality play, and the morals are founded on the political economy of the long 19th century, which ended in 1929.  Those “morals” could cope with the antebellum world which Lincoln grew up in; they could not cope with the capitalism of the Gilded Age, the Roaring ‘20’s, or today.   Which is why the Montgomery County and state level (Maryland) Democratic Party discussion about balancing budgets over the past few years was itself laying the groundwork to do our national institutions in – and why I opposed it so vigorously; for failing to make the distinction between political entities that can issue their own currency and those that can’t.

I have very grave doubts that the Democratic Party would ever venture out upon the legal grounds I am surveying here, so my advice to them would rely upon the fact that what is happening is a direct attack on the vital machinery of democracy, and a threat no matter what the theological goal of the exercise is.   The President was saying the same thing on Tuesday, but in much softer terms.

There is a clear logic to what the Right is doing; their logic is self-certified and their goals so theological that they are willing to trample the most fundamental of democratic mechanisms to get “there.”   Because the Democratic Party is so unsure of the actual scope and shape of the state it wishes for and its role in the modern economy – and leans right, not left when pressed – it is unprepared to have the full debate. That’s a debate about where the Right wants to go and about the Democrats’ own counter vision, which is pretty much the status quo and a yearning for Bill Clinton’s late “roaring nineties.”   They’re muddlers, muddling through even as the capitalism they helped unleash is destroying the necessary economic foundations for the impaired democracy they must now defend.

So they have firmer ground, in this crisis, to make their stand against the Right on the terms of its utterly unacceptable “means”   And that in itself is no small matter.  Even in a very impaired democracy, if we want to keep the memory of its better days alive, the memories of 1936,  and the possibility of its reinvention in the form of a Second Bill of Rights,  that’s the ground, high enough for now,  upon which we must  all  make a stand.

Bill Neil

Rockville, MD

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