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John Simkin

Death of the Left?

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As Ronal Reagan died yesterday I thought it might be worth discussing a speech he made to the National Conservative Political Action Conference on 8th March, 1985. Was he right?

This great turn from left to right was not just a case of the pendulum swinging - first, the left hold sway and then the right, and here comes the left again. The truth is, conservative thought is no longer over here on the right; it's the mainstream now. And the tide of history is moving irresistibly in our direction. Why? Because the other side is virtually bankrupt of ideas. It has nothing more to say, nothing to add to the debate. It has spent its intellectual capital, such as it was, and it has done its deeds.

Now, we're not in power because they failed to gain electoral support over the past 50 years. They did win support. And the result was chaos, weakness, and drift. Ultimately, though, their failures yielded one great thing - us guys. We in this room are not simply profiting from their bankruptcy; we are where we are because we're winning the contest of ideas. In fact, in the past decade, all of a sudden, quietly, mysteriously, the Republican party has become the party of ideas.

We became the party of the most brilliant and dynamic young minds. I remember them, just a few years ago, running around scrawling Laffer curves on table napkins, going to symposia and talking about how social programs did not eradicate poverty, but entrenched it; writing studies on why the latest weird and unnatural idea from the social engineers is weird and unnatural. You were there. They were your ideas, your symposia, your books, and usually somebody else's table napkins.

All of a sudden, Republicans were not defenders of the status quo but creators of the future. They were looking at tomorrow with all the single-mindedness of an inventor. In fact, they reminded me of the American inventors of the 19th and 20th centuries who filled the world with light and recorded sound.

The new conservatives made anew the connection between economic justice and economic growth. Growth in the economy would not only create jobs and paychecks, they said; it would enhance familial stability and encourage a healthy optimism about the future. Lower those tax rates, they said, and let the economy become the engine of our dreams. Pull back regulations, and encourage free and open competition. Let the men and women of the marketplace decide what they want.

But along with that, perhaps the greatest triumph of modern conservatism has been to stop allowing the left to put the average American on the moral defensive. By average American I mean the good, decent, rambunctious, and creative people who raise the families, go to church, and help out when the local library holds a fundraiser; people who have a stake in the community because they are the community.

These people had held true to certain beliefs and principles that for 20 years the intelligentsia were telling us were hopelessly out of date, utterly trite, and reactionary. You want prayer in the schools? How primitive, they said. You oppose abortion? How oppressive, how anti-modern. The normal was portrayed as eccentric, and only the abnormal was worthy of emulation. The irreverent was celebrated, but only irreverence about certain things: irreverence toward, say, organized religion, yes; irreverence toward established liberalism, not too much of that. They celebrated their courage in taking on safe targets and patted each other on the back for slinging stones at a confused Goliath, who was too demoralized and really too good to fight back. But now one simply senses it. The American people are no longer on the defensive. I believe the conservative movement deserves some credit for this. You spoke for the permanent against the merely prevalent, and ultimately you prevailed...

Now, whether government borrows or increases taxes, it will be taking the same amount of money from the private economy, and either way, that's too much. We must bring down government spending. We need a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. It's something that 49 states already require -no reason the federal government should be any different.

We need the line-item veto, which 43 governors have-no reason that the President shouldn't. And we have to cut waste. The Grace commission has identified billions of dollars that are wasted and that we can save.

But the domestic side isn't the only area where we need your help. All of us in this room grew up, or came to adulthood, in a time when the doctrine of Marx and Lenin was coming to divide the world. Ultimately, it came to dominate remorselessly whole parts of it. The Soviet attempt to give legitimacy to its tyranny is expressed in the infamous Brezhnev doctrine, which contends that once a country has fallen into Communist darkness, it can never again be allowed to see the light of freedom.

Well, it occurs to me that history has already begun to repeal that doctrine. It started one day in Grenada. We only did our duty, as a responsible neighbor and a lover of peace, the day we went in and returned the government to the people and rescued our own students. We restored that island to liberty. Yes, it's only a small island, but that 's what the world is made of-small islands yearning for freedom.

There's much more to do. Throughout the world the Soviet Union and its agents, client states, and satellites are on the defensive - on the moral defensive, the intellectual defensive, and the political and economic defensive. Freedom movements arise and assert themselves. They're doing so on almost every continent populated by man - in the hills of Afghanistan, in Angola, in Kampuchea, in Central America. In making mention of freedom fighters, all of us are privileged to have in our midst tonight one of the brave commanders who lead the Afghan freedom fighters - Abdul Haq. Abdul Haq, we are with you .

They are our brothers, these freedom fighters, and we owe them our help. I've spoken recently of the freedom fighters of Nicaragua. You know the truth about them. You know who they re fighting and why. They are the moral equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance. We cannot turn away from them for the struggle here is not right versus left; it is right versus wrong.

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What an uninteresting speech! Still, it shows the depth of self-delusion among right-wing thinkers. In my view, it all comes down to power. The right in the US have the power and they have consistently used it to reward the rich and punish the poor. They gained that power by systematic campaigns of oppression against political opponents, mostly so long ago that most people haven't heard of them (do these names - taken at random - mean anything to you: Eugene Debs, Sacco and Vanzetti, Joe Hill?). Now they control the political discourse in the US, so that 'left' comes to mean the Democratic Party!

I was trying to explain Swedish politics to a group of visiting Americans last year, and we ran into a really interesting conundrum. One of the parties of the right in Sweden is called the Liberals. But, hold on a moment, isn't a liberal a left-winger, said the Americans? Not in Europe …

When there is a truly free and diverse media in the United States …

When opposing points of view are given equal media time and attention …

When American pupils are given the same sort of education in how their society runs as Swedish pupils get …

When all the eligible voters are registered to vote automatically …

When constituency boundaries are no longer gerrymandered to produce the right result …

When the turn-out for US elections is comparable with the 80+% that is normal in Sweden …

When the system of counting votes is as fair and unimpeachable as the ones we achieve in Europe …

… and the US still elects right-wing politicians like Bush and Reagan,

then I'll believe in Reagan's ideas about the "tide of history".

What his ideas really reminded me of was O'Brien's explanation to Winston in 1984 of how the Party seized and maintained its hold on power. A prescient book, that, and, for me, the idea that Orwell was writing about the Soviet Union is about as far wrong as you could get.

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This great turn from left to right was not just a case of the pendulum swinging - first, the left hold sway and then the right, and here comes the left again. The truth is, conservative thought is no longer over here on the right; it's the mainstream now. And the tide of history is moving irresistibly in our direction. Why? Because the other side is virtually bankrupt of ideas. It has nothing more to say, nothing to add to the debate. It has spent its intellectual capital, such as it was, and it has done its deeds. (Ronald Reagan)

It is clearly true that since the 1980s the pendulum has swung right in both the United States and the UK. It is also true in most European countries (France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, etc.). There have been some cases where right-wing leaders have been replaced by those who appeared to be on the left of their predecessors (Clinton/Blair) but once in office they failed to reverse the trends started by Reagan/Thatcher). As a result the gap between rich and poor continues to get wider in these countries. The real gain for the conservatives is the move towards greater inequality.

I would argue that the main reason for this move to the right is a change in political consciousness. I would argue that people in 19th century had a greater political understanding than people did in the late 20th century. One of the reasons for this was that people realised that the capitalist media would distort the truth in order to maintain economic equality. Although the public remained sceptical about what they were told by the media, they did not have a political understanding of this deception. The common view was that all newspapers (as well as all politicians) could not be trusted to tell the truth. Worryingly, they trusted television to tell them the truth about the situation. In most cases (in the UK) it did. The problem is that television was very selective about the truth it told them. For example, television rarely highlighted the way the tax system worked.

The great achievement of right-wing politicians was to persuade people with below average incomes to vote for policies that would make them worse off. This was only possible because so many people lacked a full understanding of the way the capitalist economic system worked. For example, they seemed unaware that a reduction in progressive income tax would also mean an increase in regressive indirect taxes. This automatically resulted in a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

The new conservatives made anew the connection between economic justice and economic growth. Growth in the economy would not only create jobs and paychecks, they said; it would enhance familial stability and encourage a healthy optimism about the future. Lower those tax rates, they said, and let the economy become the engine of our dreams. Pull back regulations, and encourage free and open competition. Let the men and women of the marketplace decide what they want. (Ronald Reagan)

This is of course the basic lie of those on the right. The idea that if you lowered tax rates and deregulated the economy you would get economic justice is ridiculous. By trying to recreate the economy of the early 19th century you would of course get the same social injustices of that period. The introduction of progressive taxation and the regulation of the capitalist system were brought in by politicians in order to protect the less vulnerable in society. By deregulating you gave more power to the people who controlled the capitalist system. They in turn would use these changes for their own advantage.

What Reagan and Thatcher never did was to reduce the overall levels of taxation. They could not do this because they needed to increase the money the government had to spend. Both Reagan and Thatcher believed in increased spending on defence. They could never balance the budget without increasing indirect taxation. Thatcher found this easier to do than Reagan and was therefore more successful at balancing the budget.

Why were Reagan and Thatcher so committed to increased defence spending? Officially it was because of the fear of communism. Unofficially, it was about providing money to what Dwight Eisenhower described as the Military-Industrial Complex. The arms and oil industries have always played a prominent role in providing the funds for right-wing political leaders. The Military-Industrial Complex is the post powerful group within capitalist society. It has always worked very closely with the intelligence services. Whenever a political leader in the United States has attempted to negotiate an end to the arms race they have found themselves assassinated or embroiled in a serious political scandal: Kennedy (1963), Nixon (1974) Reagan (1986). Yes, even right-wingers like Nixon and Reagan had to be punished when they began serious arms discussions with the Soviet Union and China.

The Military-Industrial Complex was in trouble with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Surely now, we could reduce defence spending. It was therefore necessary to provide a new threat to the democratic free world (capitalism). Islamic fundamentalism now fulfils that role. Despite the collapse of communism defence spending is at a all-time high. One of the major advantages of this new enemy is that it allows you to use up some of these weapons against weak military powers. This military action leads to acts of terrorism which further justifies increased spending on defence.

Well, it occurs to me that history has already begun to repeal that doctrine. It started one day in Grenada. We only did our duty, as a responsible neighbor and a lover of peace, the day we went in and returned the government to the people and rescued our own students. We restored that island to liberty. Yes, it's only a small island, but that 's what the world is made of-small islands yearning for freedom.

There's much more to do. Throughout the world the Soviet Union and its agents, client states, and satellites are on the defensive - on the moral defensive, the intellectual defensive, and the political and economic defensive. Freedom movements arise and assert themselves. They're doing so on almost every continent populated by man - in the hills of Afghanistan, in Angola, in Kampuchea, in Central America. In making mention of freedom fighters, all of us are privileged to have in our midst tonight one of the brave commanders who lead the Afghan freedom fighters - Abdul Haq. Abdul Haq, we are with you.

They are our brothers, these freedom fighters, and we owe them our help. I've spoken recently of the freedom fighters of Nicaragua. You know the truth about them. You know who they re fighting and why. They are the moral equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance. We cannot turn away from them for the struggle here is not right versus left; it is right versus wrong. (Ronald Reagan)

This rhetoric is partly about justifying increased military spending. It is also about promoting an ideology of freedom and democracy that is crucial for imperialism. It has to convince the public that it is necessary to spend large amounts of money to intervene in other country’s affairs. In reality it is about keeping friendly governments in power. Let us look at the examples Reagan gives of America protecting freedom.

First of all, Grenada. It is true that the Americans invaded Grenada to overthrow a Marxist government led by Bernard Cord. What Reagan does not tell us is that Cord had just overthrown another Marxist government led by Maurice Bishop. In 1979 Bishop had gained power by overthrowing a government led by Eric Gairy. He had officially been elected to office in 1976. However, all neutral observers believed that Gairy had used his power to corrupt the election.

The invasion of Grenada was deemed by the United Nations General Assembly to be an unlawful aggression and intervention into the affairs of a sovereign state. A similar resolution was discussed in the UN Security Council and although receiving widespread support it was ultimately vetoed by the USA. Reagan ignored the advice of the UN and imposed his own “friendly government”.

In 1985 Reagan was proudly telling the world he was supporting Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He said it was about freedom and democracy but of course it had nothing to do with that. These political groups had no desire to bring about any such thing. Why they were helped was because they were doing what they could do to destroy left-wing movements in their countries.

The same was true of Nicaragua. In 1985 Reagan was supporting the Contras. These were the supporters of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the Nicaraguan military dictator who had been forced to flee to America in 1979. The Contras were involved in a guerrilla war against the FSLN government that had been democratically elected in 1984. Yet Reagan describes the Contras as being “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance”. Yet this is the man the American people are currently celebrating as the brave campaigner for freedom and democracy.

Now, we're not in power because they failed to gain electoral support over the past 50 years. They did win support. And the result was chaos, weakness, and drift. Ultimately, though, their failures yielded one great thing - us guys. We in this room are not simply profiting from their bankruptcy; we are where we are because we're winning the contest of ideas. In fact, in the past decade, all of a sudden, quietly, mysteriously, the Republican party has become the party of ideas. (Ronald Reagan)

So is Reagan right? Has the battle been won. Well, I am the eternal optimist and see signs of the tide turning. Yesterday we saw the current party of the Military Industrial Complex, New Labour, take a beating in the local elections. True, many of these votes went to the Tories. However, the left (in the form of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens also made significant gains). These gains took place in those areas that had traditional supported the left (industrial areas and university towns). The main reason for this change was these parties views on income tax and the Iraq War. The working class are largely apathetic about politics but the middle-classes are gradually developing a greater understanding of the way our economic system works. It is the middle-classes that will eventually move society to the left.

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Now, we're not in power because they failed to gain electoral support over the past 50 years. They did win support. And the result was chaos, weakness, and drift. Ultimately, though, their failures yielded one great thing - us guys. We in this room are not simply profiting from their bankruptcy; we are where we are because we're winning the contest of ideas. In fact, in the past decade, all of a sudden, quietly, mysteriously, the Republican party has become the party of ideas.

My dear old mother used to say "Self praise is no recommendation." Reagan elevates the self-seeking and self-satisfied triumphalism of the right into a triumph for their ideas. Where did this triumph lead in the Soviet Union for example? Does anyone other than the profiteers (many associated with the Russian Mafia) believe the conditions have improved dramatically? If this is the end of history it is a very sorry end indeed.

And of course it is not "the end of history" - the very concept is a ridiculous one. Every ruling class or ruling elite believes that the system which serves its ends must be the summit of human civilisation.

Socialists have a lot of work to do but we have been "completely crushed and destroyed" before by Hitler, Mussolini and Franco ...aided and abetted by Stalin. You have only to look at the society we live in for five minutes, at the poverty and desperation, racism and war....and then listen to some self-satisfied politician tell you this is the best of all possible worlds!

The ideas of socialism can never be completely eradicated. They keep coming back. It is as if there were something in the nature of our society...some sort of class struggle perhaps...which disrupted the smooth succession of triumphs for the right.

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The truth is straightforward: Virtually every significant problem facing the American people today can be traced back to the policies and people that came from the Reagan administration. It is a laundry list of ills, woes and disasters that has all of us, once again, staring apocalypse in the eye.

How can this be? The television says Ronald Reagan was one of the most beloved Presidents of the 20th century. He won two national elections, the second by a margin so overwhelming that all future landslides will be judged by the high-water mark he achieved against Walter Mondale. How can a man so universally respected have played a hand in the evils which corrupt our days?

The answer lies in the reality of the corrupt society. Our corruption is the absolute triumph of image over reality, of flash over substance, of the pervasive need within most Americans to believe in a happy-face version of the nation they call home, and to spurn the reality of our estate as unpatriotic. Ronald Reagan was, and will always be, the undisputed heavyweight champion of salesmen in this regard.

Reagan was able, by virtue of his towering talents in this arena, to sell to the American people a flood of poisonous policies. He made Americans feel good about acting against their own best interests. He sold the American people a lemon, and they drive it to this day as if it was a Cadillac. It isn't the lies that kill us, but the myths, and Ronald Reagan was the greatest myth-maker we are ever likely to see.

Mainstream media journalism today is a shameful joke because of Reagan's deregulation policies. Once upon a time, the Fairness Doctrine ensured that the information we receive - information vital to the ability of the people to govern in the manner intended - came from a wide variety of sources and perspectives. Reagan's policies annihilated the Fairness Doctrine, opening the door for a few mega-corporations to gather journalism unto themselves. Today, Reagan's old bosses at General Electric own three of the most-watched news channels. This company profits from every war we fight, but somehow is trusted to tell the truths of war. Thus, the myths are sold to us.

The deregulation policies of Ronald Reagan did not just deliver journalism to these massive corporations, but handed virtually every facet of our lives into the hands of this privileged few. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat are all tainted because Reagan battered down every environmental regulation he came across so corporations could improve their bottom line. Our leaders are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the corporations that were made all-powerful by Reagan's deregulation craze. The Savings and Loan scandal of Reagan's time, which cost the American people hundreds of billions of dollars, is but one example of Reagan's decision that the foxes would be fine guards in the henhouse.

Ronald Reagan believed in small government, despite the fact that he grew government massively during his time. Social programs which protected the weakest of our citizens were gutted by Reagan's policies, delivering millions into despair. Reagan was able to do this by caricaturing the "welfare queen," who punched out babies by the barnload, who drove the flashy car bought with your tax dollars, who refused to work because she didn't have to. This was a vicious, racist lie, one result of which was the decimation of a generation by crack cocaine. The urban poor were left to rot because Ronald Reagan believed in 'self-sufficiency.'

http://www.truthout.org/docs_04/060704A.shtml

Edited by William Pitt Rivers

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