Jeffrey St. Clair & Alexander Cockburn:
Dime's Worth of Difference

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

October 4, 2004   

Pic: Cover photo of 'Dime's Worth of Difference,' courtesy AK Press

Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn, Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, Consortium Publishers, September 2004, ISBN 1-90485-903-8, 160 pages, $15.95.

(Swans - October 4, 2004)   If there is one thing that both sides in the "Anyone But Bush" (ABB) debate can agree on, it is probably that Jeff St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn's Counterpunch is the most visible and powerful voice in favor of rejecting John Kerry for president. In both the print and Internet editions, Counterpunch has been publishing articles on practically a daily basis making the case against "lesser evil" politics. Drawing from previously published Counterpunch articles and a lot of new material, the collection Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils is not only a timely contribution to the debate; it will have ongoing value as a probing analysis of how money, class and political power intersect in the American Empire.

One of the most enduring myths of the ABB camp is that a second Bush term will lead to the privatization of Social Security. Whatever the flaws of the Democratic Party, they can be relied on to stick their thumb in the privatization dike like the little Dutch boy. In defending Gore against Bush in the 2000 election, Nation Magazine columnist Eric Alterman wrote, "For Social Security, our most important instrument of collective, intergenerational solidarity and the single most effective antipoverty program in US history, a Bush presidency could mean the beginning of the end." (http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20001016&c=6&s=ealterman)

With diehard Democrats like Alterman, it is easy to understand how they might have been impervious to Clinton's own efforts to privatize Social Security. In the provocatively titled "How Monica Lewinsky Saved Social Security," British leftwing scholar Robin Blackburn investigates how a sex scandal saved retirees from being shafted by the Democrats rather than Evil Republicans. As author of the recently published Banking On Death Or, Investing in Life: The History and Future of Pensions, he is an authority on such matters. Blackburn's article is not only first-class investigative reporting; it is written with great panache and wit, as the opening paragraph reveals:
"Had it not been for Monica's captivating smile and first inviting snap of that famous thong, President Bill Clinton would have consummated the politics of triangulation, heeding the counsel of a secret White House team and deputy treasury secretary Larry Summers."
Digging through evidence that seems to have eluded the liberal media in 1998, Blackburn uncovers a high-level conspiracy to turn Social Security into an extension of the Mutual Funds industry. A top-secret working group had been convened by Clinton in order to come up with a bipartisan plan for privatizing one of the crown jewels of the New Deal under the rather neutral sounding rubric of "Special Issues."

The secret team was led by Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and Gene Sperling, the head of the Council of Economic Advisers. It is of course no accident that John Kerry has drafted Sperling to his team of top economic advisers.

Before Summers assumed his post in Clinton's Treasury Department, he had distinguished himself as a World Bank economist, where he was always cooking up ideas to stick it to the poor. In an infamous memo, he proposed: "Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs (less developed countries)?" There he also cooked up a notorious report titled "Averting the Old Age Crisis" that argued that Wall Street could do a better job than the government in looking after pensions. Summers hailed the example of Chile, which had privatized its own government pension system as one of the first conquests of the Pinochet dictatorship. Nowadays Summers serves as President of Harvard University, where his tenure has been marked by a well-publicized dressing down of African-American professor Cornel West for lacking scholarly accomplishments. West left Harvard in disgust.

Clinton was kept abreast with the deliberations of the "Special Issues" working group and even attended one of their meetings. But in July of 1998 the Monica Lewinsky scandal threw a monkey-wrench into their plans. As one team member put it,
"Toward the end of 1998, as the possibility that the President would be impeached came clearly into view, the policy dynamic of the Social Security debate changed dramatically and it became clear to the White House that this was not the time to take risks on the scale that would be necessary to achieve a deal on an issue as contentious as Social Security reform."
Who is to say that John F. Kerry would not consider an assault on Social Security himself, especially in light of his appointment of Gene Sperling, one of the secret team's co-leaders? If anything, a second term for Bush would probably be better protection since the American people have been geared to oppose a plan so associated with the Evil Republican Party. After all, it took a Democrat like Clinton to abolish Aid to Dependent Children, another program long associated with the New Deal.

Another enduring myth of the ABB camp is that the Republicans are racists and the Democrats oppose racism. To even suggest that African-Americans should vote for neither major party is to risk being crucified in some circles. As Ralph Nader spoke to the Black Congressional Caucus requesting their support, Congressman Melvin Watts heckled him, calling out that he was "another fucking arrogant white man" just for having the temerity to run.

For reasons that are obvious to Kevin Alexander Gray, these elected officials much prefer someone like Bill Clinton who they have anointed as "America's first Black president." Gray, a civil rights organizer based in South Carolina, takes these questions head-on in his contribution, "Clinton and Black Americans." Opening with the words of former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater -- "[Clinton] has always wanted our love and wanted to share his love with us. It is not about the skin. It is about the spirit and the soul of this soul brother" -- Gray confesses that he was "mildly amused, a bit disgusted but not surprised" when Clinton was nominated to the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame as the only white member out of sixty-two.

How Clinton earned this goodwill escapes Gray. For a very small investment, Clinton seems to have benefited from a windfall black vote. Was it the fact that he mailed out postcards showing him posed with black families that did the trick? While some argue that his economic policies were a boon for African Americans, they fail to acknowledge that black-white income disparity remained fixed during his two terms in the White House. His partisans also point to the record number of Black appointees in his administration. On a cruder level, some point to his saxophone playing and even his affair with Monica Lewinsky as if having rhythm and being promiscuous are Black traits somehow.

For Gray, other images loom larger:
"In his first presidential race Governor Clinton ran for office supporting the death penalty at a time when the country was split almost down the middle on the issue. Then for good measure, he rushed back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of convicted killer Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black man. For years after his first election, I kept a picture of Clinton and Georgia Senator Sam Nunn posing in front of a phalanx of black inmates in white prison suits taken at Stone Mountain, Georgia. Historians generally give Pulaski, Tennessee, the dubious honor as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. But Stone Mountain is hailed as the Klan's second home. The picture appeared in newspapers all across the south the day of the southern primaries in 1992. That picture is what Clinton has always represented to me."
However, the real indictment against Clinton must be based on what happened in the prison system during his two terms. Blacks were incarcerated at a rate even higher than in Reagan's terms. Discriminating between powdered and crack cocaine had a disproportionate impact on Blacks, as did the "three strikes and you're out" provision of the Crime Bill that passed when he was president. When he first came into office, one in four black men was in the criminal justice system. When he left, the number had increased to one in three. Ironically, when black felons were denied the right to vote in Florida, this had the effect of abetting George W. Bush's theft of the presidency.

For an interesting study of the demographic changes that have turned hippy settlers of California's Mendocino County in the 1960s into corrupt and corporate-friendly Democratic Party loyalists, one can turn to Bruce Anderson's "Notes From the Big Empty." Until recently, Anderson was the publisher of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, "America's best weekly newspaper", according to Alexander Cockburn. (We should mention that Swans publisher Gilles d'Aymery resides in Anderson Valley and is determined to stick it out there despite the presence of ex-hippy Democratic Party hustlers.)

Although the scene Anderson describes is not as violent as Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," it certainly competes in terms of amoral skullduggery. Mendocino County is huge geographically -- larger than Vermont -- but contains only 85,000 people. Many of them fled the Bay Area in the 1960s in search of cheaper property values and a place where they could get "back to the land." It was also a place where the cultivation of marijuana became a source of income for many of the new arrivals. For those who did not have the stomach for criminal activity, the next best way to stay afloat economically was to get jobs in the public sector. Thus mid-level government posts became dominated by flower children, who then rapidly became Democratic Party loyalists and elected officials since the party was favorably disposed to keeping bureaucrats employed and well-paid. To return the favor, many of these ex-hippies supported pro-business policies of the Democratic Party, including the despoliation of the country's chief assets, the land and water.

It turned out that the county's mostly Democratic-leaning winery owners were bent on using methyl bromide to sterilize the soil under the grapevines. It mattered little that the chemical would sicken the mostly Mexican workers who treated the soil. With the connivance of the wine bourgeoisie and their ex-hippy friends in local office, laws to curtail the use of the herbicides and pesticides were thwarted. Anderson points out:
"The wine industry, heavy consumers of pesticides and herbicides, is environmentally devastating and socially indifferent; they clearcut large swaths of land with a thoroughness the most demented logger can only dream of doing, then lay on the chemicals year round. Socially, the industry provides little to no worker housing for the immigrant labor upon which it depends. The wine industry, which seldom pays better than minimum wages for seasonal work, rises up as one to crush UFW organizing attempts like so many grapes, and fires any worker who complains without so much as promising anything resembling a fair hearing. Congressman Thompson, a Democrat who's interchangeable with Republicans on most votes, is the wine industry's national go-to guy."
The question of the Democratic Party has existed as long as there has been a radical movement in the United States. As long as it is perceived as a party of ordinary working people, blacks and others, an independent left will forever be marginalized. By the same token, when the left tries to work as a component of the Democratic Party, its impact will be lessened.

Illusions in the Democratic Party can be bolstered most successfully if its sordid past is swept under the rug. Since many Americans, including some official intellectuals, lack an interest in history, its origins in genocide and slavery remain hidden. Instead we end up with a burnished picture of a party that has been democratic with a small 'd' and egalitarian from early on.

With the exception of FDR's New Deal, there is little to support this view -- not to speak of Roosevelt's own often hostile attitude toward trade unions and his temporizing with fascism until Hitler overstepped his bounds. When Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described Andrew Jackson, the first Democrat in the White House, as a kind of precursor to FDR, he must have thought it was unimportant that Jackson represented the slavocracy and owned slaves himself.

Sooner or later, a new generation of radicals will find a way to connect with the working people, blacks, women and gay voters who stick with the party despite being abused and lied to. When that day arrives, the United States will be shaken to its foundation. Jeff St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn's new book will be an important weapon in this struggle to open the eyes of the American people.

Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn, Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, Consortium Publishers, September 2004, ISBN 1-90485-903-8, 160 pages, $15.95.

You can order the book directly from AK Press.

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Published October 4, 2004
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