Push Back and Protest

Liberals have ceded the moment. The liberal establishment has been operating too long in the thin air of amoral political expediency, standing with the Democrats and the president even when the Democrats and president have sold out progressive goals for short-term political gain.

On financial reform, the environment, job creation and, most spectacularly, healthcare reform, the liberal establishment has looked over the political landscape, identified potential obstacles and punted.

This has allowed the tea-partiers to gain a foothold, to push a narrative about government that paints it as a foreign, antagonistic force. Government, however, is not inherently bad. The problem in the United States is that the corporate order has taken it over and the citizenry has lost the ability to set priorities and influence its actions.

That is the issue with health care. Our corporate-run, profit-driven system has nothing to do with health or care. It is about money. Insurance companies make money by collecting premiums and then refusing care. It is a simple equation.

But rather than dismantling the system and building a new one that does not use profit as primary incentive, we have reform that entrenches the corporate order, funneling suitcases full of cash to big insurance.

All because we remain wed to a reactionary narrative that should have been tossed atop the junk heap of history with Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008, a narrative that has distorted our understanding of how government actually functions, what its role is and why we need it as a bulwark against corporate power.

Corporate power, after all, is the evil here, and not government as a theoretical entity. Government is not separate from the people; it is the people, working collectively to bolster their power, to provide us with defense, to ensure the public welfare, to protect us from the rapaciousness of big business and massive concentrations of power.

Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political theorist, said in 1997 that government was the only entity he knew of that could level the playing field for citizens in their dealings with the corporate world. He defined himself as an anarchist and intensely suspicious of concentrated power. But he also wanted to make it clear that power concentrated in the hands of a profit-driven corporate order was far more of a threat to individual liberty and well-being than the growth of a regulatory state.

“There are plenty of good arguments, in my opinion, against centralized government authority,” he told John Nichols in an interview in the Madison Capital Times. “On the other hand, there’s a much worse danger right outside. The centralized government authority is at least to some extent under popular influence, and in principle at least under popular control. The unaccountable private power outside is under no public control.”

He called our love affair with privatization and the markets and our willingness to cede decision-making power to private interests “a kind of corporate mercantilism” that merges government and the private sector and enforces “social policies and a conception of social and political order that happen to be highly beneficial to the interests of the top sectors of the population, the richest sectors.”

Democratic government, government of the people and by the people, is the bulwark, the collective will and embodiment of the people. By its nature, it has a responsibility to defend those things that are or should be human rights: free speech and expression, privacy and personal safety and the right to feel secure in our homes, obviously, but also freedom from want and hunger, access to medical and preventative care, a clean environment, etc.

A system that views economic efficiency as the highest of goals, that is willing to consign millions to a metaphorical poorhouse as it gobbles up more land, taints more water, enslaves and kills more and more people and generally equates power with money is not just absurd but deadly, both physically and spiritually.

Our only hope is to push back, to protest, to demand a restructuring of society that respects and protects our individual autonomy and engages our spirit. We must become rebels, as Chris Hedges pointed out in a column on Truthdig in March, men and women who “refuse to be either a victim or an executioner” and “have the moral capacity to say no, to refuse to cooperate.” That, he says, “offers us the only route left to personal freedom and a life with meaning.”

“Rebellion allows us to be free and independent human beings, but rebellion also chips away, however imperceptibly, at the edifice of the oppressor and sustains the dim flames of hope and love,” he wrote. “And in moments of profound human despair these flames are never insignificant. They keep alive the capacity to be human. We must become, as Camus said, so absolutely free that ‘existence is an act of rebellion.’ Those who do not rebel in our age of totalitarian capitalism and who convince themselves that there is no alternative to collaboration are complicit in their own enslavement. They commit spiritual and moral suicide.”

And they may just take the rest of society down with them.

Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in central New Jersey. E-mail; blog,

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2010

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