2008: Another turning point that didn’t turn?

By 1848 Europe had been a tinderbox for a while. The neo-feudal structure that Metternich had cobbled together at the Congress of Vienna no longer matched the social and economic realities of the times. The absolute monarchies were unwilling to liberalize in the slightest — not on free press or trial by jury or any form of representation — and so talk of revolution was everywhere.

Then beginning in February one-by-one revolutions broke out. In France Louis-Philippe I (there would be no II) abdicated and fled to England. In March a mob demanded the resignation of Metternich, and he fled to England. A week later a mob turned ugly in Berlin after rifles were fired, and Frederick William IV promised a constitution and arms for the people. Within a year this all collapsed. Absolute monarchy was back (except in France where they traded a constitutional monarch for a president who would become an emperor). Liberalization was defeated. As British historian AJP Taylor put it: “German history reached its turning-point and failed to turn. This was the fateful essence of 1848.”

What happened? Friedrich Engels studied what happened in Germany and he came to this conclusion. The middle class leaders of the revolution in Berlin were spooked by the worker agitation in Paris (which resulted in brutal retaliation by the provisional government). They had seen peasant and worker riots recently and wanted no part of it. So when the King was at his most vulnerable and ready to bargain for constitutional reform, a representative Parliament and various guarantees of personal liberty, the middle class turned to the King to protect them from the workers.

“Such was the dread evinced by the new ministers of the aroused masses, that in their eyes every means was good if it only tended to strengthen the shaken foundations of authority. They, poor deluded wretches, thought every danger of a restoration of the old system had passed away; and thus they made use of the whole of the old State machinery for the purpose of restoring “order.” Not a single bureaucrat or military officer was dismissed; not the slightest change was made in the old bureaucratic system of administration. These precious constitutional and responsible ministers even restored to their posts those functionaries whom the people, in the first heat of revolutionary ardor, had driven away on account of their former acts of bureaucratic overbearing. There was nothing altered in Prussia but the persons of the ministers; even the ministerial staffs in the different departments were not touched upon, and all the constitutional place-hunters, who had formed the chorus of the newly-elevated rulers, and who had expected their share of power and office, were told to wait until restored stability allowed changes to be operated in the bureaucratic personnel which now were not without danger.” Engels, Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany (Chapter VI) (New-York Tribune, November 28, 1851).

Having given the King needed breathing room, the middle class “revolutionaries” allowed the landlords, courtiers and militarists to regroup and take back with an iron fist all the concessions the King made.

Now, let’s take a look at 2008. I’m only going to suggest a political analogy and not try to employ a materialistic social or economic analysis. But the mechanics are the same.

In 2008 the discredited hard right of the Republican Party was in disarray. Not only had its incompetence been displayed, it lost its credibility after Iraq and its policies were completely discredited when the financial markets collapsed after years of financial deregulation. The serious recession that followed put the country in a mood for serious change. And in fact it elected a candidate for President whose principle promise was “change.” The mood of the country and demographics were so profoundly against the GOP as then constituted that there were predictions that they were in the midst of a crisis as profound as they were at the defeat of Goldwater.

So what did we get? Evidently there was at least one slip twit the cup and the lip. Did we see a team put together that critically analyzed the failures of the previous prevailing ideology and promote meaningful change? Let’s take three examples.

Treasury was given to a man who was fundamentally center-right. Timothy Geithner began his career at Kissinger Associates. His first Treasury Department job was under Ronald Reagan. He was named president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York by President George W. Bush. When he was being considered for Treasury Robert Kuttner wrote for the American Prospect:

Geithner’s admirers span the spectrum from Republican financial mogul Pete Peterson to liberal Democrat Barney Frank. One can infer from his broad fan base three possible conclusions: Wall Street is so clubby and politically powerful that permissible policy differences just aren’t that great; or maybe Geithner is all things to all people; or perhaps, in a deep crisis, truly talented and effective people can earn broad respect.

It was the third possibility that hopeful liberals seized on; it was also the mistake the bourgeois ministry made in 1848.

At Defense, the new President kept the same Secretary that ended the disgraced former administration.

At Interior he selected Gang of 14 “moderate” Ken Salazar, a representative of the “new Democratic west.” This is what wikipedia has to say about his credentials for the spot:

“In 2006, Salazar voted to end protections that limit offshore oil drilling in Florida’s Gulf Coast.

“In 2007, Salazar was one of only a handful of Democrats to vote against a bill that would require the United States Army Corps of Engineers to consider global warming when planning water projects.

“According to Project Vote Smart, Ken Salazar received a 25 percent vote rating for 2007 by the Humane Society of the United States, a zero percent vote rating for 2005-2006 by Fund for Animals, a 60 percent vote rating for 2007 by Defenders of Wildlife, and a zero percent vote rating on the Animal Welfare Institute Compassion Index. He also supported the Bush Administration’s release of lands in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for emergency haying in Colorado’s Yuma and Phillips Counties.” (footnotes and hyperlinks omitted.)

And then we started hearing all of the “moderate” talk: some on the left believe this … some on the right believe this — I believe exactly in the middle. And the policies proposed were purely lukewarm “moderate” proposals. The “stimulus” package (the Administration could not even force itself to use a Labor phrase like “Jobs Bill”) was stacked to favor GOP tax cuts and then ineptly designed in other respects. The second “stimulus” bill was a tax cut for small business.

“Health Reform” during the campaign was explained as having a Medicare type public plan to compete with the private insurers but eventually the proposal was stripped from the plan because the President faced too much conservative opposition. This was not until after the President had made a deal with big Pharma not to allow drug imports or to allow Medicare to use its bargaining power to purchase cheap drugs. This deal was for their support for the plan. They are now contributing (with the extra profit) to Republicans.

On “national security” not only was any real investigation of illegal torture early derailed, but the Administration has grown to accept much of what we all thought was illegal or at least immoral under his predecessor.

A real life General Buck Turgidson, Stanley McChrystal, one who already lied to cover up the military’s incompetence in the Pat Tillman affair, was appointed to head the Afghanistan effort and when he wanders off the ranch dictating the strategy that he wants — to the press, not the President — the President goes into hiding to discuss it and weeks later complies.

The instinct of this Administration to cave in to the least pressure from Fox News or any Republican reached such a point that the first reaction was to fire an employee based on uncorroborated, edited videos on a rightwing blog.

Having thus compromised his entire administration, the President now tries to become Harry Truman, claiming that all the problems with the economy can be traced to the Republicans and therefore the voters should vote for Democrats this year. According to The Hill:

“On Aug. 9 in Bush’s home state of Texas, Obama said the ex-president’s ‘disastrous’ policies had damaged the economy, noting that Bush inherited budget surpluses and ended his time in the White House with a budget deficit.”

“During a fundraiser with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in Seattle this week, Obama said, ‘Eighteen months ago I took office after nearly a decade of economic policies that had given us sluggish growth, sluggish job growth, falling incomes, falling wages and a record deficit.’

“Obama has explained that the reason he is highlighting the record of the previous administration is because the GOP is offering ‘retreads’ of Bush’s policies.”

The problem with this belated strategy is that, notwithstanding that the GOP has for a couple of decades proposed “disastrous” economic plans, this Administration accepted some and compromised with the rest of those very “disastrous” plans. How can anyone get enthusiastic about supporting a group that was willing to make policy deals with the people whose policies they now say are dangerous?

How did this happen? Well, we can’t know because there is not even a hint of transparency in this Administration. But we can expect that the high muckamucks of the campaign met the bigwigs of the Democratic Party and realized,

Holy hell! what have we unleashed? If we do even a fraction of what our supporters expect us to, we are going to lose the big contributors, the establishment “pundits,” the permanent foreign policy establishment, Wall Street and everyone else who matters. Let’s do this: Since we are certainly secure in thinking the public will never go back to Republicans, let’s do mostly what they would have done and then none of those people will ever betray us! Where are our supporters going to go anyway? To Sarah Palin!

Isn’t this precisely what Camphausen and Hansemann thought when then took the ministry offered by Frederick William IV to form the short-lived March ministry? And should we low members of the Democratic Party be any happier with our betrayal than the German Democratic Party was with theirs?

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