Ron Paul: The Highest Stage of American Exceptionalism

“In the United States, the imperialist war waged against Spain in 1898 stirred up the opposition of the ‘anti-imperialists.’ the last of the Mohicans of bourgeois democracy who declared this war to be ‘criminal,’ regarded the annexation of foreign territories as a violation of the Constitution, declared that the treatment of Aguinaldo, leader of the Filipinos (the Americans promised him the independence of his country, but later landed troops and annexed it), was ‘jingo treachery,” and quoted the words of Lincoln: ‘When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs others, it is no longer self-government; it is despotism.’ But as long, as all this criticism shrank from recognizing the inseverable bond between imperialism and the trusts, and, therefore, between imperialism and the foundations of capitalism, while it shrank from joining the forces engendered by large-scale capitalism and its development-it remained a ‘pious wish.’”  (Vladimir Lenin, Spring 1916)

“Simply put, freedom is the absence of government coercion. Our Founding Fathers understood this, and created the least coercive government in the history of the world. The Constitution established a very limited, decentralized government to provide national defense and little else. States, not the federal government, were charged with protecting individuals against criminal force and fraud. For the first time, a government was created solely to protect the rights, liberties, and property of its citizens. Any government coercion beyond that necessary to secure those rights was forbidden, both through the Bill of Rights and the doctrine of strictly enumerated powers. This reflected the founders’ belief that democratic government could be as tyrannical as any King.” (Ron Paul, February 8, 2005)

What are we to make of the ideological oddity that is Ron Paul? The Texas congressman, who is by many accounts slowly and steadily attaining frontrunner status as a candidate for president in the GOP primaries, in spite of the media’s willful ignorance, wants to end U.S. imperialism in the Middle East and beyond–along with the military-industrial complex that supports and profits from it–and then remove every last governmental restraint on the ability of America’s ruling capitalists to reinvest the “peace dividend” in what he promises will be productive, socially beneficial endeavors. He wants to dismantle the expanding Homeland-Security police state at home and force cops to actually give a shit about the Bill of Rights, even presumably in the ghettos, which he tells us can do without taxpayer-funded “welfare-state” provisions like public schools and hospitals. He wants to restore America to its purer, more noble past, a throwback utopia that emerged historically straight out of the heads of Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of the crew. If he is unreasonable, it is only because he is incorruptible.

We are living in a time of universal corruption in government and in private commercial life. Indeed, as the two grow ever more corrupt, they appear ever more inseparable. Obama and the “serious” GOP candidates this time around don’t even seem all that interested in engaging with that teeming mass of unwashed known as their constituents. They know the jig is up. They know that American politics has at long last declared independence from the stultifying, deceptive analytical paradigm peddled incessantly by the Wolf Blitzers and David Gergens of society. These official gatekeepers would have us believe that Barack Hoo-sane Obama is the best the working class could ever hope for and that Ron Paul is the worst it has to fear. History has not yet come back from the dead for these reasonable, pragmatic adults in the room. They are clinging desperately to Fukuyama’s opium dream of a world where each of the billions of exploited wretches on the planet wants to be like Michael Jordan or Bono or Bill Clinton eating a Big Mac while getting his dick sucked. If Mitt Romney can be said to have any base at all, it is these Bourbons of the Beltway who have recently stepped down from their lofty political perches in order to smear Mr. Paul as a “racist” or worse.

Because mainstream debate has never taken seriously even the remote possibility of a Ron Paul presidency, nobody it seems has given any real thought to how a Ron Paul administration might actually govern. American history is filled with presidents who built their political careers advocating one thing only to do a complete 180 when they got to the White House. Jefferson started out as a fierce opponent of American territorial expansion but his greatest legacy as president was the Louisiana Purchase. Lincoln opposed the further expansion of slavery as a candidate in 1860 but went out of his way to disavow abolitionism during the campaign. Wilson kept us out of World War I until he didn’t. Reagan told us government is the problem and then presided over the most astronomical deficit expansion to date at the time. Obama . . . nuff said.

But no candidate for president other than Ron Paul has ever been so committed to an idea as to be seemingly indifferent to who his base is. Like some silver-tongued Roman orator, Paul speaks of a republic lost and an empire in decay and promises to return us to our former Ciceronian virtue by demolishing both the “warfare state” that the left so despises and the “welfare state” that the right professionally loves to hate. In doing so, he has made the strangest of bedfellows out of a remarkably diverse coalition of white boys, from young college kids, to rural armed survivalists. To publicly support Ron Paul is to be personally at least tolerated by all of the politicized sections of the 99 percent, from the Tea Party to the Occupations and everywhere in between. Put this guy in the oval office, and there’s no telling, it seems, what he would try to get away with, much less accomplish.

America (more specifically, the United States thereof) has for most of its young history been exceptional in following ways: it is a country that began just as the industrial revolution was accelerating in Europe and the capitalist system was consolidating itself as the dominant mode of production around the globe, but its vast, “uninhabited” lands enabled its people to postpone the social reckoning that the contradictions of that system caused in Europe for over a century. For nearly a century after the closing of the frontier, the United States further postponed this reckoning by being the economic beneficiary of two world wars that obliterated the productive capacity of the rest of the industrialized world while leaving American capital untouched. When the rest of the world finally caught up economically beginning on the 1970s, and American wages began to stagnate (they still are!), the U.S. ruling class postponed the reckoning even further by extending easy credit to working class households so that the same extraordinary consumption patterns could continue. A little over three years ago, the party ended, and the reckoning is right now upon us.

When people say that “socialism never took hold” in the U.S. because of some essential cultural attribute of its people, or that Americans are distinguished by their tendency to value “pragmatism” over “ideology,” they obscure–whether inadvertently or willfully–the exceptional material circumstances that have historically allowed Americans to put off the inevitable confrontation between labor and capital. This kicking of the can down the road has occurred with little interruption for so long that we have fallen accustomed to believing that we really are different, that we really are immune from the laws of history that govern other countries, that we can work it out, just like John Lennon promised.

Ron Paul’s capital crime as a candidate, for which the media will now lynch him, is not his advocacy of a radical “left wing” foreign policy platform or a radical “right wing” approach to domestic spending. It is the more general ideological narrative he is promoting on the campaign trail, a narrative that portrays the actually-existing United States as just another imperialist welfare-warfare state instead of the liberal-democratic “city on a hill” that the 1-percentrists on CNN have told us it is all throughout our lives. By forcing us to critically confront the actual words and thoughts of the same founding fathers that our rulers so incessantly fetishize, and by forcing us to compare those ideals to the endless wars, mounting police state, and exploding social crisis this country now suffers from, Paul invites ordinary Americans to fantasize that we can continue to be exceptional, that we can continue to prosper without resorting to class struggle like they do in other countries–at the expense of their “liberty.” That we need not concern ourselves with what socialism is really all about.

The problem is that the material circumstances that have made America so exceptional for over two centuries have now been exhausted, and like fossil fuels, they can never be replaced. A Ron Paul presidency (or even merely an Obama-Paul general election) would force this realization into the forefront of the American political debate because the litany of government evils Paul has spent his career railing against are, as a material historical fact, absolutely vital to the survival of the very capitalist system Paul has spent his career defending.

Ron Paul’s platform, taken as a whole, does not, indeed cannot, consistently represent any one person or constituency’s interests. At best, it represents our aspirations as a people. But these aspirations are informed not by our future but by our past, and as such, they can never be realized in our present. The sooner these anachronistic aspirations are put to the test and exposed for the fantasies they are, the sooner the more culturally conservative layers of the American 99 percent will get serious about the historical duty they share with the rest of us in the coming global confrontation with capital.

You’re Doin’ a Heckuva Job, Himmler: Will the Specter of FEMA Concentration Camps Unite the Right and Left within the American 99 Percent?

Go to YouTube and type in “FEMA concentration camps.” You will bring up countless videos making some variation on a truly disturbing claim. Apparently, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA–you know, the same people who fucked up Hurricane Katrina–have for years been planning America’s version of the Holocaust, complete with the trains, the camps, and the gas chambers. Sooner or later, the government is going to declare martial law, at which point the Constitution will become dead letter and millions of Americans will be rounded up and “relocated” to one of scores of detention facilities that are currently being readied all throughout the continental United States. Most of them will never come out alive.

On a federally-owned piece of land in Madison, Georgia, the government is stockpiling thousands of black plastic casket liners, each of which can hold several human corpses. When the killing starts, the bodies will be disposed of and buried in these things (where else but in America are the mass graves littered not only with decomposing bodies but also with tons of non-biodegradable plastic?).

Interestingly, the coming American Holocaust will differ from the Nazi Holocaust in one critical respect: its victims will be determined solely by their political activities and convictions, not by their race, ethnicity, or religion. The government–yes, the Obama administration–has put the names of every American onto one of three lists. The red list contains the names of outspoken dissidents–activists and community leaders openly in the forefront of challenging the “new world order” the government is trying to impose on us all. They will be taken out and shot immediately and may not even make it to the camps. The blue list contains the names of Americans who “know too much”–a far larger group who have been identified as sympathetic to resistance against the new world order but are more passive in their support for such resistance than those on the red list. They will be sent to the camps to be “re-educated” and killed if their re-education fails. Finally, the yellow list contains the remaining American “sheeple”–the ignorant masses who don’t know or don’t care that anything is amiss in the land of the free. These obedient wage slave-consumers will be implanted with tracking chips and sent on their merry way.

Until recently, talk of FEMA coffins and gulags could be found only on the American right among the patriot militia groups, survivalists, and religious extremists. But this fall’s coordinated crackdown on the Occupy encampments and the likely passage of the 2012 National Defense Authorization act and the Stop Online Piracy Act, among other repressive pieces of legislation making their way through Congress, have caused alarm among much of the newly resurgent American left that the knives of reaction and repression are being sharpened for them too. Gun control, to make a long story short, is beginning to seem like a tyrannical prelude to fascism in the eyes of an increasing number of liberals.

Surely the American government would never under any circumstances resort to systematic politically-motivated genocide on a continental scale, right? And at any rate, if it ever did, it would never put the Keystone Kops at FEMA in charge of carrying out the slaughter. It would have to create an outfit like the SS to do it with German-style efficiency. The point, however, is not so much the details of what the American government is planning to do to its dissidents as the fact the crackdown on activists of all stripes is currently gathering steam.

It is commonly said that the terms “right” and “left” no longer hold any meaning in the twenty-first century. This claim is confused for the following reasons. The terms “right” and “left” originated in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The revolutionary National Convention was organized such that those leaders who occupied the seats on the right hand side were satisifed with the abolition of monarchy and the establishment of formal equality under the law whereas those in the left hand seats wanted to go further and equalize the distribution of wealth within French society. Understood in this original sense, the American people are perhaps only right at this very historical moment discovering what right and left really mean. For most of our history, right and left were tied up in one way or another with a two-party system, both sides of which have governed in the interest of the 1 percent and in that sense are each fundamentally right wing. Millions of Americans in the 99 percent were considered “right wing” for superficial cultural reasons like being obsessed with guns or distrustful of different races and nationalities. A sizeable portion of America’s 1 percent was considered “left wing” because they supported the Democratic Party, even as that party has drifted increasingly rightward in the past few decades.

What we may be finally seeing is the American 99 percent sorting itself out into two political blocs, one of which is concerned primarily with liberty and other of which is concerned primarily with equality. At the same time, we are seeing that the 1 percent in both parties gives a shit about neither liberty nor equality for the 99 percent and is actively working to undermine both.

What will hopefully come out of these developments is the widespread understanding that a strong and critical libertarian outlook is as vital to the health of any anticapitalist movement as a strong and critical egalitarian outlook, and that the two are in fact inseparable. Individual freedoms are not something that can be sacrificed for the greater political good any more than are social equality and economic security for all. Those who hoard all the power to make decisions for everybody are always the same people who end up hoarding the lion’s share of what everybody produces. Its not that one causes the other. Its that one is always a symptom of the other.

While we all, if we are decent people, hope that racist gun nuts will see the error of their ways before its too late, let’s not throw the defend-liberty-by-any-means-necessary baby out with the racist, xenophobic bathwater. Spike Lee reportedly walked out of The Patriot, the Mel Gibson movie about the American Revolution, in the middle because he considered it to be a grave lie about history (which, of course, it was). But the part that offended him was when the Mel Gibson character shedded his racist beliefs after seeing the heroic actions taken by a black colonist in the struggle against King George. Such a tale of newfound solidarity may have never happened in the first American Revolution, but it will have to happen all over the place during the second American Revolution if the 99 percent ever hopes to thwart the efforts of the 1 percent and the government that works for it to restore the stability of capital markets on the back of our Constitution, however it may attempt to do so.

Why Is This Debt Bubble Different from All Other Debt Bubbles? A Deeper Look into the Higher Education Clusterfuck

Going to college and then going to grad school/business school/law school/medical school/etc. is one of those good deeds (in the eyes of our parents) that has hardly gone unpunished as of late. I need not go into detail about how tuition costs have risen so much in the last decade as to outpace inflation or how the total national amount of student loan debt has surpassed the total national credit card debt or how the class of 2011 faces the highest unemployment in history. What I want to talk about is the way the 1 percent and their hangers-on blame the victims of these circumstances. In particular, I want to talk about the idea that the type of knowledge a student decides to pursue has economic implications and that it is the personal responsibility of the student to consider these economic implications when choosing classes or a major.

Is unemployment and insolvency really something a student was asking for by taking out $200,000 in loans in order to study such “worthless” disciplines as history, sociology, anthropology, or, god forbid, women’s studies (are you dumb broads listening?)? If that is so, then presumably the “responsible” decision every student ought to make is to pursue a field of knowledge that is more reliably lucrative, such as business, economics, law, or engineering. But if every student chose these disciplines as the focus of their studies, then the value of those degrees on the job market would plummet proportionally. It’s simple supply and demand. And in any case, ask  most recent law or business school graduates how their job search is going and you will more likely than not hear that they have yet to find a position in their field that will enable them to repay their debts anytime soon.

When we were applying to colleges and grad schools, when we took the tour and the administration was trying to entice us to choose their institution over other competing institutions, nobody mentioned anything about personal responsibility in our choice of classes and majors. No, instead we were told that whatever we were interested in, we should follow our dreams by enrolling in their school and taking advantage of their “world-class faculty” and so forth. At best, we were told that the world would be open to us so long as we studied hard and distinguished ourselves in whatever area we chose to focus on. If a degree from the place couldn’t guarantee a successful outcome, it would at least give us an equal opportunity to succeed. Only after we graduate do America’s education pimps tell us that even straight A’s may not cut it if we picked the wrong course of study after taking out six-figure mortgages on our hides.

Is there some giant conspiracy to screw American youth? It sure seems that way. But conspiracy theories are most often feeble attempts to make sense of a contradictory world that fails to conform to the simple logic we use to solve our everyday problems. We must analyze more deeply the contradictions of this world we live in if we are to truly understand the source of the troubling circumstances we find ourselves at the mercy of.

At some point in our lives, each of us was probably shown a graph displaying how each higher academic degree will guarantee us, on average, a higher respective income over a lifetime. The same wonkish individual who showed us this graph also probably said something about how college tuition is an investment in our “human capital” and that the future return on this investment, in the form of higher wages and benefits and a higher standard of living will more than compensate for increasingly obscene expenses of higher education. More generally, we hear all kinds of experts and pundits telling us that education itself is a panacea for income inequality and that educating the maximum number of Americans will remedy the loss of good jobs to overseas countries. In short, we have been told that education, quite literally, creates economic value. Yet if this were true, then the most educated generation in history would be prospering right now, not living at home with their parents at age 30. The reason why record levels of higher education have, on the contrary, coincided with record unemployment levels remains a mystery unless we understand where economic value actually comes from.

Marx famously distinguished between a commodity’s use value and its exchange value. A use value is simply whatever use we make of the commodity. We value a can of soup because we can open it, cook its contents, and nourish ourselves by eating those contents. That is its use value. An exchange value is the commodity’s market price at any given time, which is determined by supply and demand. One cannot quantify–put a dollar amount on–use values the way one does with exchange values, but every commodity must have a use value in order to have an exchange value, because if an item is of no use to anybody, nobody will pay anything for it, and it will be literally worthless.

Marx also singled out a special kind of commodity – a worker’s labor power – as the only commodity that is capable of creating more value than it is worth. Labor power is simply the worker’s capacity to work for an employer. It is most typically measured by the clock, such that the worker exchanges X hours worth of labor power for Y dollars in wages (and benefits, etc.). This exchange itself, however, does not determine in advance how productive the worker will actually be on the job, and it therefore does not determine the value to the employer of the worker’s labor after the fact. The price of a worker’s labor power–i.e. the value of the compensation the worker can expect from a given employer–is determined by the supply and demand of the labor market. If a lot of workers are competing for a few openings for a certain position, the price of labor power in that position will be lower than if fewer workers are competing for many openings for the same position.

In a simple, hypothetical capitalist economy, where all workers have the same level of education and skill, the only variables determining the price of labor power for each position is the number of openings for that position and the number of applicants for that position. In the nineteenth century, college and graduate schools were largely the province of the elite, and the economy operated far more closely to this model, although different workers of course had different skills. Only in the twentieth century did higher education become open to the working class on a mass scale. By the century’s end, however, something curious had happened. Whereas higher education was once a ceiling through which most workers could never expect to break, it had become a floor below which most workers would not be able to survive. The pressure to go to college and beyond was driven not only by the hope of a better life after graduation but, perhaps more directly, by the fear of a miserable life without a post-secondary degree.

What higher education has become, then, is a vehicle for the relativization of labor power. By graduating from an institution of higher learning, a worker appears to add a premium to the value of his or her labor power, but that degree does not in fact raise the value of the worker’s labor power in an absolute sense; it only does so relative to other workers who lack it. The degree’s exchange value to the graduate–the extent to which it is worth the price of tuition and all of the interest payments–is necessarily a function of its scarcity in the labor market as a whole. The greater the number of workers that graduate from college and grad school and compete on the job market, therefore, the lower the value of each graduate’s relative labor power.

But education also has a use value, does it not? Education enables us to be critical, to smell bullshit and not be hoodwinked. Education allows us to read and understand this blog and others. Education equips us to think outside every box in which the 1 percent incessantly tries to confine us. Education empowers us to be revolutionaries. The use value of an education is wholly distinct and unrelated to the extent to which higher learning translates into higher wages and better working conditions except to the extent that it enables us to better appreciate the value of collective action and solidarity within our own workplaces.

By simultaneously educating us en masse and chaining us to a lifetime of debt slavery in the process, the 1 percent have truly created their own gravediggers. The youngest among us, who have the most at stake, will stop taking out student loans and attending college in the same numbers and with the same blind trust. But that does not at all mean that they will cease to educate themselves, for their very refusal to participate in such a rigged game will be a product of their real education. The bubble that’s about to burst is not merely the student debt instruments that will become assets as toxic as subprime mortgages once the coming wave of defaults begins to hit. The true bubble that is about to explode, a bubble far longer in the making, is the American myth that those who work hard and play by the rules are anything other than suckers and chumps.