The current metaphor of “the fiscal cliff” marks the return of a few common tropes in American politics. First is the latest incarnation of what Naomi Klein has referred to as the Shock Doctrine, the use and sometimes manufacturing of “crisis” situations to force people to accept right wing / neoliberal policies that legislative bodies and the citizens who vote for them would not allow to pass under “normal” circumstances. The use of Hurricane Katrina to push through school privatization is an oft-cited case in point.
The second familiar trick is the use of a “natural” metaphor to make something that was a deliberate political choice sound like an inevitable result of forces beyond human control. (Though we now know that much of current weather trends is the result of climate change created by humans.) According to the eminently fallible Wikipedia, cliffs may be defined as follows:
“Cliffs are formed as erosion landforms due to the processes of erosion and weathering that produce them. Cliffs are common on coasts, in mountainous areas, escarpments and along rivers. Cliffs are usually formed by rock that is resistant to erosion and weathering. Sedimentary rocks are most likely to form sandstone, limestone, chalk, and dolomite. Igneous rocks, such as granite and basalt also often form cliffs. An escarpment (or scarp) is a type of cliff, formed by the movement of a geologic fault, or a landslide.”
Unlike your average cliff, the fiscal cliff was not created by these tectonic and atmospheric conditions. It was created by politicians and the corporate donors who employ them. You might think on reading this that the idea of proposed cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare that are part and parcel of the fiscal cliff are being forced through by Republicans. But you’d be wrong. In a recent interview with Paul Jay of the Real News Network, Bill Black argues that the fiscal cliff was not only not made by natural forces – or natural ones –
– but by Barack Obama, who is threatening to become the first Democratic President to cut Social Security and Medicare, though he has currently been prevented been doing so by an odd congressional coalition of Tea Party Republicans and progressive Democrats. Claims to the contrary are as fake as the flora and fauna in the above video culled from the archives of ancient history. Black paints the following picture:
“BLACK: Well, we’re headed into the next year. Right at this point, it looks like the grand fiscal cliff negotiations won’t succeed before the end of this year. I’ve just done a piece, you know, that asks the question, since everybody agrees now that the fiscal cliff is incredibly stupid and really dangerous, in the sense that it’s designed to impose austerity, and they’re saying that if we were to continue this austerity for very long, we would throw the nation back into recession, I went back and looked. How did we come about—you know, who’s the moron that created this fiscal cliff that they’re talking about? And it turns out it’s President Obama. And it’s not only President Obama that insisted on this, but he insisted on the fiscal cliff for the express reason that it would create what he called “discipline”—what I would call extortion—on liberals to vote in favor of beginning to unravel the safety net— Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps— ’cause if they didn’t, lo and behold, there’d be this fiscal cliff and all kinds of social programs would be gutted. So throw Grandma under the bus was the logic.
JAY: So you’re saying it wasn’t meant to target the Republicans into a crisis; it was actually more meant — more progressive Democrats to stampede them into a crisis.
BLACK: That’s from Obama’s perspective. And then two things happened. The House Republicans in particular said, let’s de-fang this fiscal cliff, and Obama fought that and killed it. And then the Republicans, after the so-called supercommittee failed to get budget cuts, said, let’s change the law so there’s no fiscal cliff, and President Obama issued a veto warning, saying that he would veto any legislation removing the fiscal cliff. So we’re left with the following forms of insanity. First, that President Obama is the leading person who created this fiscal cliff to deliberately create this danger of austerity throwing the nation back into recession. Now he agrees that’s insane. So what is his proposed solution? Even greater austerity through an agreement with congressional Republicans. So, you know, Obama would have been destroyed politically and United States would have been thrown back into a great recession if Obama had been able to get the austerity he was seeking back in July 2011 through what he called the grand bargain and I call the great betrayal. Fortunately, the combination of the Tea Party and progressive Democrats saved Obama and saved the nation. But Obama has kept on trying to get austerity ever since. And so the new year, the major question is: can progressives once more save Obama from Obama and save the nation from Obama and this European-style austerity that would throw America back into recession?”
For an excellent article that provides a broader context for where this cliff-making falls in the larger picture of Obama’s career, check out Yasmin Nair’s Clash of the Neobliberal’s: Obama’s Shell Game and an article she refers to by Walter Ben Michaels on left and right neoliberalism. Michaels argues that the progress on issues of race and gender equity represented by the 2008 Democratic primary contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has been used to make folks think we’re heading in the right direction of a more equitable society when the facts show otherwise:
“From this standpoint, the contest between Obama and Clinton was a triumph, displaying, as it did, both the great strides made toward the goal of overcoming racism and sexism, and the great distance still to go towards that goal. It made it possible, in other words, to conceive of America as a society headed in the right direction but with a long road to travel. The attraction of this vision—not only to Americans but around the world—is obvious. The problem is that it is false. The us today is certainly a less discriminatory society than it was before the Civil Rights movement and the rise of feminism; but it is not a more just, open and equal society. On the contrary: it is no more just, it is less open and it is much less equal.
In 1947—seven years before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen years before the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—the top fifth of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of the money earned in the us. Today that same quintile gets 50.5 per cent. In 1947, the bottom fifth of wage-earners got 5 per cent of total income; today it gets 3.4 per cent. After half a century of anti-racism and feminism, the us today is a less equal society than was the racist, sexist society of Jim Crow. Furthermore, virtually all the growth in inequality has taken place since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965—which means not only that the successes of the struggle against discrimination have failed to alleviate inequality, but that they have been compatible with a radical expansion of it. Indeed, they have helped to enable the increasing gulf between rich and poor.
Why? Because it is exploitation, not discrimination, that is the primary producer of inequality today. It is neoliberalism, not racism or sexism (or homophobia or ageism) that creates the inequalities that matter most in American society; racism and sexism are just sorting devices. In fact, one of the great discoveries of neoliberalism is that they are not very efficient sorting devices, economically speaking. If, for example, you are looking to promote someone as Head of Sales in your company and you are choosing between a straight white male and a black lesbian, and the latter is in fact a better salesperson than the former, racism, sexism and homophobia may tell you to choose the straight white male but capitalism tells you to go with the black lesbian. Which is to say that, even though some capitalists may be racist, sexist and homophobic, capitalism itself is not.
This is also why the real (albeit very partial) victories over racism and sexism represented by the Clinton and Obama campaigns are not victories over neoliberalism but victories for neoliberalism: victories for a commitment to justice that has no argument with inequality as long as its beneficiaries are as racially and sexually diverse as its victims. That is the meaning of phrases like the ‘glass ceiling’ and of every statistic showing how women make less than men or African-Americans less than whites. It is not that the statistics are false; it is that making these markers the privileged object of grievance entails thinking that, if only more women could crash through the glass ceiling and earn the kind of money rich men make, or if only blacks were as well paid as whites, America would be closer to a just society.
It is the increasing gap between rich and poor that constitutes the inequality, and rearranging the race and gender of those who succeed leaves that gap untouched. In actually existing neoliberalism, blacks and women are still disproportionately represented both in the bottom quintile—too many—and in the top quintile—too few—of American incomes. In the neoliberal utopia that the Obama campaign embodies, blacks would be 13.2 per cent of the (numerous) poor and 13.2 per cent of the (far fewer) rich; women would be 50.3 per cent of both. For neoliberals, what makes this a utopia is that discrimination would play no role in administering the inequality; what makes the utopia neoliberal is that the inequality would remain intact.”
Let’s try and think of an image for what separates the 1% in the heavens from the 99% they rip off who live on the earth…