On November 4th, 2008, I found myself in a room full of my friends openly weeping. That was the night President Barack Obama was elected to office. I felt I had somewhat of a personal stake in the Obama campaign. That, and I was a little drunk. I don’t claim to be an activist, but I had read his books. I had donated to his campaign back in May of 2007 when it looked like Hillary would win the nomination. Most importantly, I had just gotten back from Egypt, where I had spoken to dozens of Egyptians who liked Obama. I thought his election would send a great signal to the world after 8 years of Bush.
Today, I find myself frustrated. In terms of foreign policy, Obama has reneged on his promise to close Guantanamo Bay. Under his administration, the military-industrial complex has expanded the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or “drones.” Some drones are used for reconnaissance. But drones are also used to carry out small-scale operations. I have not done a thorough accounting of the usage of drones, but the drone attacks that have taken place, for example in Pakistan and Yemen (nations Congress has not declared war against), are violations of the sovereignty of those nations and therefore illegal under Article II of the United Nations Charter. Furthermore, the use of drones in covert operations could cause blowback in the form of reverse-engineering, if a crashed drone were to get into the hands of a state determined to attack the U.S.
What do I mean when I say “military-industrial complex” in the above paragraph? I borrow the phrase from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the American people, delivered on January 17th, 1961. This video is worth watching:
To briefly reflect on this (and forgive the eerie background music): this man is not a crazy radical or an out-of-touch “elite.” He is a former five-star General of the United States Army and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, responsible for defeating National Socialism and ending the holocaust. In 1961, he is warning about the potential for the wedding of Capitalism and Militarism to unsettle the balance of civil-military relations that is one of the fundamentals of the American democratic tradition. In 2012, I fear we are seeing this potential realized.
In terms of domestic policy, since the 1990s, we have seen a wedding of a different sort that is influencing events in unsettling ways. The “Glass-Stegall Act” refers to four provisions of the Banking Act of 1933 (the same law which established the FDIC and provided the basis for recovery from the Great Depression), which limited affiliations between commercial banks (the banks that you and I go to to open our checking accounts and such) and investment banks (e.g. Goldman Sachs). You can see why this was important in the context of the Great Depression, when the stock market crash caused all the commercial banks, which had invested their (i.e. your) money into the market, to go broke.
In 1999, Congress repealed the Glass-Stegall Act through the “Graham-Leach-Bliley Act.” On November 4, 1999–9 years to the day before I would find myself crying on my couch, which was in his very district–John Dingell (Democratic representative from the Ann Arbor district in Michigan) gave this prophetic speech in opposition to Graham-Leach-Bliley:
Dingell warns that if commercial banks and investment banks are allowed to merge with one another, it will get so complex that the institutions created will become “too big to fail.” This is in 1999 that he is saying this, folks.
Here’s what happened (right click>view in new tab):
A significant part of the banking/finance space has now been consolidated in the hands of a few corporations. What we are seeing is a monopoly (perhaps more properly an oligopoly) in this industry. I was taught that Teddy Roosevelt was a great President because he was a “trust-buster” who broke up monopolies during his presidency from 1901-1909. But in 2012, the government has acquiesced to a monopoly in the banking/finance space. And every time the harmful effects of that monopoly manifest themselves, the state does not break it up, but it takes your money and gives it to them so they can continue their business (which is the business of money, after all).
So a monopoly is inherently bad enough. But what makes a monopoly in the banking/finance space so scary? Recall the reason for the Glass Stegall Act in the first place: the Great Depression. When banks are allowed to speculate with your money, they might win for years and years and years. But eventually, they lose (in 2008, it was not “losing” but the blind pursuit of victory at all costs that drove the proliferation of subprime mortgage-backed-securities in the financial markets). And when that happens, shit gets fucked up.
That’s what we saw in 2008 when our IRAs got decimated, and the same thing has been allowed to continue under Obama. (To truly make this argument would require a massive research effort that I do not have the time to undertake at the moment, but I will offer one common thread to investigate: Larry Summers, the Treasury Secretary under Clinton in 1999 when Graham-Leach-Bliley was passed who was also the head of Obama’s economy “recovery” team (which was really just a massive bailout to the financial and automotive industries). In fact, the Treasury Department as an institution would make quite the interesting focus of study, perhaps paired with the Fed. Maybe I’ll take this on superficially for a future post.)
So why am I writing this? I feel like a fool for crying at the election of Obama. “Change” through participation in electoral politics at this moment in history is useless. There is only one solution: change yourself. Change your practice. This means switching up your routine, getting off your ass, talking to other people. Participating in “democracy” as a democratic practice (which has nothing to do with “Democrats”).
On May first, the “occupy” movements across the country are staging a general strike. I say “occupy” instead of “Occupy Wall Street” because it’s not about occupying Wall Street, it’s about occupying yourself by engaging with others whom you have never met before. Otherwise, you will be sitting at your cubicle, distracted as the twin forces of the military-industrial complex and finance capital destroy our country, and perhaps the world.