Only if the president-elect is willing to fight big money and redistribute wealth can he stop the rise of someone far worse than Trump.
It brought a tear to the eye and a hand to the heart. Joe Biden, in his acceptance speech, called for unity and healing. He would work “to win the confidence of the whole people”. I just hope he doesn’t mean it. If he does, it means that nothing has been learned since Barack Obama made roughly the same speech in 2008.
The United States of America is fundamentally divided. It is divided between exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed. There is no unity to be found with kleptocrats and oligarchs. Any attempt to pretend there is will lead to political failure.
It will lead not to healing but to a deflected polarisation. If Americans are not polarised against plutocrats, they will be polarised against each other.
I understand that, in a sentimental nation, bromides like Biden’s might be considered necessary. But I fear he believes what he says.
When he spoke to wealthy donors at the Carlyle hotel in Manhattan last year, he told them not only that “no one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change”, but also that “you have to be able to reach consensus under our system”. In this context, consensus looks like appeasement.
Obama’s attempt to reconcile irreconcilable forces, to paper over the chasms, arguably gave Donald Trump his opening. Rather than confronting the banks whose reckless greed had caused the financial crisis, he allowed his Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, to “foam the runway” for them by allowing 10 million families to lose their homes.
His justice department and the attorney general blocked efforts to pursue apparent wrongdoing by the financiers. He pressed for trade agreements that would erode workers’ rights and environmental standards, and presided over the widening of inequality and the concentration of wealth, casualisation of labour and record mergers and acquisitions.
In other words, he failed to break the consensus that had grown around the dominant ideology of our times: neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism has been neatly described by William Davies, a professor at Goldsmiths College, as “the disenchantment of politics by economics”. It sees politics as an ineffective or illegitimate means of social improvement. Decision-making should be transferred to “the market”, a euphemism for the power of money.
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Through buying and selling, we establish a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Any attempt to interfere in the discovery of this natural order – such as taxing the rich, redistributing wealth and regulating business – will inhibit social progress.
Neoliberalism disenchants politics by sucking the power out of people’s votes. When governments abandon their ambition to change social outcomes or deliver social justice, politics become irrelevant to people’s lives. It is perceived as the chatter of a remote elite. Disenchantment becomes disempowerment.
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