Disdain: On Perry Anderson’s America

Academic leftism left can be fun and informative. In some of its professional practitioners’ hands, it can also seem alienating and dismissive towards working class people and progressive activists. 

Take the eminent British half- or post-Marxist historian Perry Anderson’s [1] essay on the sorry state of U.S. politics, titled “Homeland.” Published last June in the Anderson-edited New Left Review, a leading organ of academic Marxism at its best, “Homeland” brings richly informed historical insights to the American political scene. With deft synthetic acumen and wit, Anderson situates that scene within the “parameters of four determinants”: (1) shifting developments in the capitalist “accumulation regime”; (2) the changing “sociology” and demographics of the U.S. electorate; (3) “cultural mutation in the value system at large within the society;” (4) “the aims of the active minorities in the voting base of each party.”[2]


How Little the Parameters Have Shifted 

I cannot here delve into precisely how Anderson – an author of sweeping volumes on the rise of European feudalism and the absolutist state and much more – weaves these “four determinants” together to bring us to the Age of Obama. I would, however, like to register strong agreement with the following passage, which nicely captures key lines of corporate neoliberal and related militarist and repressive continuity between the administrations of Bush 43 and Obama 44 (whom Anderson cleverly calls America’s “first only half-white president”) – lines set down by elite “boundary-makers” in the previous century:  


“How little the parameters of the political system had shifted with the reversion to Democratic tenure of the White House can be seen by the degree of continuity in the agendas of the Bush and Obama presidencies. Both rulers, like Reagan before them, took office in a recession and responded with tax-cuts to goose the economy. Both presided over weak measures to rein in financial excesses. Both extended health-care benefits to gain social support. Both increased federal funding on education. Both sought reform of immigration. Both hiked military spending, and curbed civil liberties. Both escalated the deficit. The principal difference has lain in the size and direction of the side-payments each partisan variant has made, within a framework set by the joint requirements of business confidence and voter appeasement, in conditions of deteriorating economic performance.” (Anderson, “Homeland,” section 7) 

Anderson is quite right to note that “the scattered disbursements of the federal stimulus, often undercut by fiscal contraction at state level, have left most of their recipients cold.” He sharply observes that Obama’s health reform is a modest “extension of social benefits in exchange for a bonanza to the private health-care industry” (the big insurance and drug companies). He eloquently ads that “it is mainly an extension of Medicaid, but one that will still leave about 30 million Americans uninsured, and the rest bewildered in a system of yet more complexity and opacity than before—the bill enacting it is 900 pages long.”

Anderson correctly observes that Obama’s tax changes leave the nation’s excise system deeply regressive. He is dead on right to note that Obama’s record has far less in common with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal than it does with what he adroitly labels its more relevant “comparator….the callisthenic gauze of [John Kennedy’s] New Frontier.” (Anderson, sec. 7)


Identity Over Class

This is all very incisive and well-said. So is Anderson’s conclusion that demographic change in the electorate (the declining percentage of older married Christian white voters and the rising shares of younger, minority, female, gay, unmarried, and un-churched voters) and related “corset-loosening” culture shifts (“compatible, of course, with any amount of market-friendly conformism” – sec.6)) like the decline of marriage and church attendance and the rising presence of women in professions favor the Democrats’ continuing hold over the presidency. At the same time, Anderson neatly observes that the radical right business takeover of the Republican Party combines with the “deluge of [corporate and financial political] money”(Anderson observes that the costs of a successful challenge to a Congressional incumbent rose from $100,000 in the 1970s to $1.5 million by 2002 – sec.10) and continuing “disarray” in the regime of accumulation to mean that “the current neoliberal [U.S.] order has become a political no-man’s land in which no organic formulae of rule [Roosevelt’s New Deal or Reagan’s ‘free market’ revolution] is now in sight.” (Anderson, sec.11) 

Anderson is quite right to note that American political development across the long neoliberal era has seen the “replace[ment of] what was once something like class politics with what is now closer to identity politics as the basis of coalition-forming and electoral mobilization” (sec. 6) in the U.S.. The hold of that identity politics (emphasizing race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural identity over class) in the Age of Obama (and into a likely Hillary Clinton administration) is not without irony, for, as Anderson notes, “Under Obama, [America’s already stupendous class] inequality has continued to grow” (sec.8) – to truly obscene levels.


“Mass Apathy” 

All of this and more in Anderson’s essay alone makes last June’s NLR almost worth its newsstand price. Speaking of fun, Anderson likes readers to know that he knows not just more languages then they do, but more English words as well. He always sends readers to the dictionary to learn new words. “Homeland” did not disappoint, turning me to Webster’s to brush up on “regalian,” “scansions,” and “palimpsest” while learning for the first time of “coruscating” and “adumbrate.” 

The problem with Anderson’s analysis comes with his cold take on the majority working class populace that lives under the United States’ rotten, neoliberal political order, shaped by what he calls “the all-capitalist ideological universe – a mental firmament in which the sanctity of private property and superiority of private enterprise are truths taken for granted by all forces in the political arena.” (sec.9) Anderson is clearly unimpressed with the U.S. citizenry. “So far,” he writes, “there has been little popular protest.” Further: 

“The one attempt to arouse it, the Occupy movement, failed to ignite any mass response. Even when its slogans were—all too easily—rendered down into Presidential boiler-plate, they still had only a limited take-up. A campaign highlighting the arrogance and egoism of the rich, personified by his billionaire opponent, kept Obama in office. But it galvanized no popular upsurge. Fewer bothered to vote than in 2008; the incumbent lost some four million supporters; his adversary gained half a million. Like his predecessors, the President returned to the White House with the assent of roughly a quarter of the adult population. The predominant mood continues to be not indignation, or enthusiasm; it remains a depoliticized quietism….Just this underlying environment of mass apathy is what lends active minorities a power in the political system beyond their numbers. The polarization of outlooks that is now regularly held to be its greatest bane is their affair. In the vacuum created by the many—an unorganized, passive citizenry dispersed across a vast continent—the passions of the few, those with the will and means to mobilize, take on a peculiar intensity, little affected by the surrounding numbness” (bridging sections 8 and 9, emphasis added).


Protests Beyond Occupy, 2009 to Present 

I am hardly one to argue that popular resistance to the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money is highly advanced – much less where it should ideally be from a radical left perspective – in the U.S. today. If I had my druthers, the U.S. today would be a seething cauldron of anti-capitalist agitation and mass mobilization on the verge of a revolutionary general strike. That is quite obviously far from the current American reality. Still, Occupy is hardly the only attempt to arouse popular U.S. protest to have emerged during the Obama years. Leaving aside the right wing, corporate-funded “Tea Party” explosion of 2009 and 2010 – an Astroturf, fake-grassroots pseudo-movement[3] that (nonetheless) captured no small amount of genuine popular indignation – progressive activists affiliated with the Connecticut Working Families Party protested Wall Street bonuses and bailouts at the homes of American Insurance Group (A.I.G) executives and at an A.I.G. office in Connecticut in March of 2009.[4] That same year saw the emergence of significant large-scale student and faculty protests against budget cuts and tuition hikes across the sprawling University of California system. A Time dispatch from California in March of 2009 includes some remarkable reporting from Perry Anderson’s own campus of UCLA: 

‘During two days of protests at UCLA, where the UC regents met to vote on the fee increase, about 2,000 students from the 10-campus system confronted riot police, shouted slogans and blocked building exits. Like a scene out of the angry 1960s, students surged against barricades and briefly seized a building near the main campus quad; police used taser guns on several protesters, and arrested nearly 20. All the while, police helicopters hovered overhead, TV vans with high antennas stood ready and students played drums and strummed guitars.’ 

‘At a sit-down strike that blocked vehicles from leaving, UCLA student leader Michael Hawley spoke through his bullhorn, "We want one regent to come out to speak to us about why the world's richest country will be denying some students higher education next quarter." Police responded by telling demonstrators they had three minutes to leave before being arrested. Then, forming a flying wedge, police led a small group of regents to another building.’ 

‘Addressing 100 students blocking a parking garage driveway defended by eight visored police with billy clubs, UCLA Sophomore Chiemela Okwandu told the crowd, "This is our university. We can sleep here if we want."…In addition to the mass protest at UCLA, students at UC Davis, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz occupied buildings to signal their displeasure with the fee increase. At UC Davis, more than 50 people were arrested Thursday on misdemeanor trespassing charges for refusing to leave Mrak Hall. At UC Berkeley, students took control of the second floor of Wheeler Hall on Friday before campus police arrested three students and at UC Santa Cruz protesters occupied a building and issued a list of demands to the campus administration.’[5] 

In April of the following year, CNN reported thousands of protesters organized by the AFL-CIO “rallied in downtown New York City Thursday to voice their anger over what they perceive as the roles Wall Street and big banks played in America's economic crisis. Marching from City Hall to Wall Street, the protesters chanted ‘good jobs for all,’ and held signs with messages including ‘Hold banks accountable,’ ‘Make Wall Street Pay,’ and ‘Reclaim America.’”[6] 

An epic, massive, multi-week firestorm of remarkable and creative, pro-labor popular protest (including the occupation of a state capitol building) against the anti-union policies and austerity agenda of Wisconsin’s corporate-funded Teapublican governor Scott Walker captured national and global attention in February and March of 2011. The Wisconsin uprising garnered visiting supporters from all over the country. It spread to state capitols in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan.[7] “Madison” helped inspired Bloombergville, a campsite formed to protest fiscal austerity in New York City that provided a bridge between the Wisconsin struggle and Occupy Wall Street.[8] 

Along the way we’ve also seen: the rise of nationwide movements against senseless neoliberal school closings and related “high-stakes” public schools testing[9]; a successful longshoremen’s strike mobilization[10]; a massive turnout of marchers and activists to oppose military imperialism and corporate globalization at the combined meetings of NATO and the G8 (despite an incredible demonstration of massive, high-tech repressive power by the militarized, multi-jurisdictional national and local police state and its private/corporate security allies) in Chicago (Obama had to move the second meeting to Camp David because of his reasonable fear of mass protest in May of 2012)[11]; a national movement against bank foreclosures of lower and working class homes[12]; major protests (involving tens of thousands of marchers across the country, including 50,000 marchers in Los Angeles alone, on May 1, 2010) against Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant Senate Bill 1070[13]; a large number of protests against the low and negative tax burdens and other protections enjoyed by leading banks and corporations like Well Fargo and General Electric in numerous locales in early 2011[14]; protests against police brutality and racial profiling in California (including riots in Anaheim after police shootings of Latino youth last year[15]) and New York City’s (site of a large silent march against the city’s racist “stop and frisk” policy in the spring of 2012[16]; a “growing movement of people speaking out and standing up to protest the use of drones by the United States in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as at home in the United States”[17]; prisoner work and hunger strikes in Georgia [18] and California [19]; giant marches and demonstrations against the racist killing of Trayvon Martin and the jury verdict that exonerated Martin’s killer[20]; and significant protests around climate change and the eco-cidal Keystone XL Pipeline, including a sizeable (50,000) march on the White House last March.[21] 

We’ve seen “the emergence of CORE [the ultimately victorious progressive faction within the Chicago Teacher’s Union – CTU] and the increased militancy of the CTU in waging a fight-back against school closures, privatization and austerity has produced new labor-community alliance that offer more promise than anything we’ve seen in this town in decades” (Chicago activist Richard Reilly). Last fall, on the eve of the presidential election, the progressive CTU used the poplar power it developed through those alliances to win significant concessions from the city’s neoliberal mayor and former Obama chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel. The 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike focused to a remarkable degree on the business elite’s campaign to advance authoritarian “skill and drill” standardized testing as the main criteria for assessing teachers, students, schools and education in general.[22] 

Over the past three years, hundreds of workers at the notoriously anti-union retail giant Wall-Mart have conducted one-day strikes, including one last year on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year. [23] At demonstrations held across 15 U.S. cities two weeks ago, worker and activists affiliated with OUR Wal-Mart promised to mount the biggest strike ever against Wal-Mart on one Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) this year..[24] Also beginning before Anderson’s essay was published and continuing through the summer of 2013, the “Fight for 15” has emerged, with many thousands of fast food and retail workers this summer demanding a doubling of their minimal minimum wage, pegged well below livable compensation. [25] Thousands of fast-food workers have taken part in a nationwide walkout as part of a growing grassroots movement that has drawn energy from the example of Occupy As New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse noted after one such walkout last July: 

“From New York to several Midwestern cities, thousands of fast-food workers have been holding one-day strikes during peak mealtimes, quickly drawing national attention to their demands for much higher wages….What began in Manhattan eight months ago first spread to Chicago and Washington and this week has hit St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Mich. On Wednesday alone, workers picketed McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Popeye’s and Long John Silver’s restaurants in those cities with an ambitious agenda: pay of $15 an hour, twice what many now earn….These strikes…carry the flavor of Occupy Wall Street protests and are far different from traditional unionization efforts that generally focus on a single workplace …[since they] aim…to mobilize workers — all at once — in numerous cities at hundreds of restaurants from two dozen chains.”[26] 

New York City fast food worker activist Jonathan Westin also sees a connection to the Occupy Movement. He tells the Guardian that "Occupy helped raise the issue of inequality and inspired a whole movement for protest. But this is a more direct action approach. We're taking these strikes all over the country. People have to take to the streets to be heard. That's what we see and that's why this is going all over the country."[27] 

And just now, this late August and early September, Obama has confronted significant majority public opposition to his plans – currently on hold – to attack Syria with cruise missiles and bombs. Millions of Americans left, right, and center have contacted their congressional representatives and the White House to voice their dissent against war. A new antiwar movement awakened in response to the president’s latest military chest-pounding.[28] The liberal antiwar Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL) recently and quite reasonably called the temporary blocking of a U.S. military intervention in Syria the biggest victory for the peace movement since the end of the Vietnam War.[29] 

Strange Chronology and Deletions 

But back to Occupy itself. Did it really “fail to ignite a mass response”? Anderson approaches the question of Occupy’s significance with an odd, highly defective timeline. After claiming that Occupy sparked no popular upsurge, he finds it curious that Obama’s appropriation of some its popular terminology in a pseudo-populist presidential campaign against Mitt “Mr. 1%” Romney brought little popular take up of its slogans and “galvanized no popular upsurge.” He also mentions low turnout in the 2012 presidential election as a sign of popular apathy. 

This strange chronology leaves out two basic realities. First, it omits the tens of thousands of citizens and activists who set up sympathetic and imitative Occupy encampments in droves of towns and cities across the United States once the story broke about activists’ successful take over of Zucotti Park. As the black radical commentator Glen Ford noted in early October of 2011, “Like a political Andromeda Strain, the anti-Wall Street phenomenon has replicated itself in a thousand locations, a pattern of leftish activism resembling a new and successful cell-phone service map; everyone seems, potentially, connected.”[30] 

Second, Anderson curiously deletes the often quite brutal repression of Occupy that preceded its replacement by the coming major party-big money-candidate-centered and highly “personalized quadrennial electoral extravaganza” (Noam Chomsky[31]) as the nation’s leading media story in late 2011. There is no telling how Occupy might have developed further but for the federally coordinated police state repression it faced across the nation, facilitated by no small degree of federal coordination.[32] State authorities used a number of by now standard “command and control” tactics to manage and marginalize the anti-plutocracy protestors: “frequent and often mass arrests, surveillance, the use of barricades and kettling, and infiltration” As progressive economist Jeff Madrick noted in Harper’s earlier this year, writing only of the New York City chapter:

 “it has become increasingly clear that OWS didn’t fizzle because its objectives were muddled or its talk too abstract or its organization too chaotic. In fact, the movement was undone by a concerted [multi-jurisdictional] government effort to undo it….Taken together, the coordinated and disproportionate actions of the NYPD, the FBI, and Homeland Security represent a campaign of suppression without which Occupy might well have evolved into something more formidable, even in the cold of New York City’s winter.[33] 

In reality, there were multiple causes of Occupy’s decline, including problems within Occupy. Still, the prolific left U.S. journalist and author Chris Hedges is right to note “that whatever the internal faults of the Occupy movement – and they were there – the Occupy movement was destroyed. The state was quite rattled by the Occupy movement and is determined not to allow a movement, a mass movement like that to rise up again.”[34] And what was true in New York City was both relevant for, and true in relation to, what happened across the nation. 

Anderson’s two deletions are intimately related: why would government authorities have felt compelled to crush a popular movement that had failed to ignite any mass support and response? 

At the same time, the popular significance of Occupy is not measured only by the numbers of people who joined or visited its camps and assemblies. Madrick notes that the Occupy movement “did achieve its broader purpose: to raise awareness of the injustice of inequality in this nation. ‘We are the 99 percent’ will remain with us as a political slogan every bit as galvanizing for the moment as ‘Hell no, we won’t go’ was for the draft protestors of the 1960s.” Furthermore, “offshoots of Occupy remain active in many areas”– resisting foreclosures, challenging the Supreme Court’s plutocratic Citizens United ruling, and providing relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy (“Occupy Sandy”), among other things.[35] 

Another key thing missing from Anderson’s analysis is any reasonable sense of the difference and indeed the conflict between social movements on one hand and U.S. electoral politics on the other. Why is Anderson mystified or disappointed by the failure of Obama’s appropriation of (some of) Occupy’s rhetoric to “galvanize a popular upsurge”? Consistent with the longstanding relationship between rank and file social movements and the Democratic Party in U.S. history[36], the discursive appropriation was meant precisely to co-opt, capture, and marginalize popular protest – that is, to channel popular anger into the narrow choices offered by the elite-controlled and corporate-managed U.S. party and electoral system [37] that Anderson rightly (in my opinion) disdains. 

It’s nothing new. A shining example of that channeling process was the admittedly all too unchallenged way that labor and other Democratic elites dismantled the rank and file Wisconsin struggle as a social movement, turning the significant popular protest unleashed in early 2011 into a predictably unsuccessful electoral effort to recall Scott Walker and replace him in the governor’s office with an uninspiring centrist Democrat (Tommy Barrett). The point of the Obama re-election campaign’s attempted co-optation of Occupy rhetoric and slogans (“the 1%” v. “the 99%) in the fall and winter of 2011 and 2012 was to take those slogans off the streets and put to them to fake-populist work in the next “quadrennial extravaganza,” not to form a protest The appropriation mostly followed significant state suppression, including federal (Obama administration) repression of the protest movement. Such repression had not been requited in Wisconsin, where, sadly protesters pretty much followed their liberal “leaders” into electoral oblivion.[38] 

As for U.S. low voter participation in the 2012 election, why or how is it proof of the absence of protest or indignation in the U.S? “Homeland” give an erudite dissection of (among other things) just how painfully limited the choices really are between the two major neoliberal U.S. political organization and their respective plutocratic candidates. Anderson seems fully aware that Obama’s claim to represent the 99% and against the 1% was mendacious campaign boilerplate, consistent with the formerly left Christopher Hitchens’ onetime description of “the essence of American politics” as “the manipulation of populism by elitism.”[39] Why then does Anderson see an American’s failure to vote for the fake-progressive Brand Obama in 2012 as a sign of their passivity and quiescence? I know more than a few Americans who find the choices on offer from the corporate- and Wall Street-captive major party candidates as far too narrow to merit a vote. They register a protest of sorts by not voting or by voting or for officially un-electable third or fourth party candidates. 

But then Anderson does not seem to fully appreciate just how flawed the U.S. electoral system really is when it comes to representing citizen views. At one point in “Homeland,” Anderson attributes Bush 43’s success in the 2000 presidential election to the Bush campaign's ability to stay on the safe side of the electorate’s changing demographics by keeping “moderate in tone” and avoiding “an overt appeal to religious zeal.” By Anderson’s account, “capture of independent voters, not turn-out of the already committed, gave him the White House.” (Anderson, sec.5) There are some rather key deletions here (!): the racial-ethnic cleansing of voter rolls by Republican operatives in Florida, the related voter and vote-count suppression activities of Florida Governor Jeb Bush and other Republican officials throughout the state, and the cold authoritarian and partisan intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally and literally “gave him [Bush 43] the White House.” [39A]