Dewey’s Shadow, Chomsky’s Cloud, and the Health Care Debate

12/04/12 0 COMMENTS

First published on ZNet on April 7, 2012

It’s nothing new for American politics to be subordinated to the dictates of capitalism and the business elite beneath and beyond the charade of popular governance. Sixty four years ago a brilliant young historian named Richard Hofstader noted that “the fierceness of [American] political struggles [past and present] has often been misleading, for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise” and been “fiercely…capitalistic” as well as “intensely nationalistic.”[1] 

A generation before Hofstader, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Dewey significantly observed that U.S. politics would stay that way as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by commend of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”[2] 

Twelve years before Dewey wrote that passage the prolific American Socialist novelist Upton Sinclair used a fictional representation of Eugene Debs to observe that “the two [dominant U.S.] political parties” were “two wings of the same bird of prey The people [are] allowed to choose between their candidates, and both of them [are] controlled, and all their nominations [are] dictated by, the same [money] power.”[3] 

Nearly four decades into the neoliberal era, however, the moneyed elite’s abject domination of the nation’s political and policy processes has reached a level that almost defies belief. Noam Chomsky put it very well last summer, in the wake of the grotesque elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis, when the leaders of both of the major parties agreed to slash government expenditures in standard defiance of majority citizen support for increased public investment to address mass unemployment. “Since the 1970s,” Chomsky observed, “[Dewey’s] shadow has become a dark cloud enveloping society and the political system. Corporate power, by now largely financial capital, has reached the point that both political organizations, which now barely resemble traditional parties, are far to the right of the population on the major issues under debate.” [4] 

Consider as one contemporary point among many the stark corporate and financial captivity and narrow state-capitalist contours of the sorry and constricted debate over the national health insurance reform bill currently being reviewed by the right-wing U.S. Supreme Court. In Washington and across the paranoid-style, neo-McCarthyite talk radio and FOX News airwaves, the Republican right is again (reprising themes that brought us the Tea Party phenomenon in 2009 and 2010) accusing the deeply conservative Obama[5] and the Democrats of attacking American liberty and prosperity with a state-socialist plan hatched from the writings and speeches of Marx, Lenin, and Hitler. They can hardly contain their fear for the republic, threatened by the “big government” dagger of totalitarian “Obamacare.” 

The right wing business propagandists do not seem likely to inform those they have egged into dread that Obama’s “radical leftist” insurance bill is based on the legislative proposals of the right wing Republican Heritage Foundation in the 1990s. Modeled largely on a state-level plan that likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney passed and oversaw as governor of Massachusetts, it is dedicated to a vision of “change” that leaves a parasitic oligarchy of giant private insurance and drug companies free to extract and extort massive profits that drive health care costs to the breaking point for individuals, families, communities, non-profits, small businesses, and government. 

So what if, as the economist Dean Baker has shown, we could eliminate the dreaded fiscal deficit by replacing the hopelessly dysfunctional privatized and employment-based health insurance system with a universal public model similar to what exists in other industrial nations – with a system that would cut health costs in half and yet deliver superior outcomes? And so what if a solid U.S. public opinion majority has long favored a Canadian-style single-payer system whereby the government grants equal health coverage to all citizens regardless of wealth, income, and other social distinctions?[6]  

None of this matters in the authoritarian U.S. “plutonomy” (Citigroup’s lovely 2005 term for America’s dollar-drenched distortion of democracy[7]). As Chomsky observed last year, “the financial institutions and Big Pharma are far too powerful for such options even to be considered.”[8]   

Welcome to Dewey’s dark cloud and the nation’s gaping “democracy deficit” – a much bigger problem than the related and much-bemoaned fiscal deficit. 

The dominant propaganda says that a relevant moment for citizen input on matters of policy comes in the nation’s periodic, highly time-staggered election spectacles. Not really. Those highly personalized big money and big media “quadrennial extravaganzas” (Chomsky[9]) are less about serious policy matters than they are about the competing  mass-marketed images of establishment-vetted candidates,[10] who know that their elite sponsors do not tolerate popular challenge to the financialized corporate and imperial priorities of the regime. 

The current epic Supreme Court deliberation hinges on whether or not the federal government has the right to compel all citizens who can afford it to be covered by the private health insurance mafia. Under the terms in which it is being debated before the high court, Obama’s misnamed “Affordable Care Act” would apparently pass muster if it was a single-payer bill whereby the federal government used its tax and administrative powers to become –in accord with technically irrelevant majority opinion – “we the people’s” insurance-provider: the de facto de-commodifier of health coverage. But, of course, no U.S. president is about to defy the nation’s real power centers by advancing a vision of health care that transcends the narrow “horizons of property and enterprise” to that degree. 

It will not do to blame the ever crazier right wing Republicans alone for this unhealthy state of affairs. The Obama team and their fellow corporate Washington Democrats made sure to take serious progressive health insurance reform (single-payer) off the table of “the national health care debate” from the beginning of the “hope” presidency. The not-so leftmost wing of the nation’s bipartisan state-capitalist bird of prey dangled ever-more-meaningless versions of a mysterious “public option” (never seriously entertained in the face of business opposition) before the bewildered and marginalized populace while acting to entrench the unchallenged hegemony of the relevant corporate and financial players. [11]  In this as in so many other ways, the Obama-era Democrats showed that they are no less beholden to the “hidden primary of the ruling class” (Laurence Shoup) than the G. [Tea.] O.P. – a great experiential lesson that helped bring the Occupy Movement into being last fall.

As liberals fret over the power of unelected justices to veto Obama’s “duly legislated” corporatist health insurance bill we would do well to consider the deeper power of the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money[12] to prohibit progressive measures supported by most of the population at earlier stages in the policy process. 

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of many books and studies, including Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman&Littlefield, 2007); Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: Chicago Urban League, 2005); and Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); and Crashing the Tea Party (Paradigm, 2011, co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio)

Selected Notes


[1] Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York, Vintage, 1989 [1948]), xxxvi-xxxix. 

[2] John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York; New Press, 1916). 

[3] The Appeal to Reason, no. 459, September 17, 1904, p.1, reproduced in Gene DeGruson, ed., The Lost First Edition of Sinclair’s “The Jungle” (Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Press, 1988), Illustration L. 

[4] Noam Chomsky, “American Decline: Causes and Consequences,” Alakhbar English, August 24, 2011. 

[5] I owe the description of Obama as “deeply conservative” to Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From? The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). After considerable research into, and long interviews with, candidate Obama, MacFarquhar found that “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean…It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good.” McFarquhar particularly cited the future president’s position on health care issues: “Take health care, for example. ‘If you’re starting from scratch,’ he says, ‘then a single-payer system’—a government-managed system like Canada’s, which disconnects health insurance from employment—‘would probably make sense. But we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside’…Asked whether he has changed his mind about anything in the past twenty years, he says, ‘I’m probably more humble now about the speed with which government programs can solve every problem.’”  MacFarquhar might added “deeply opportunistic.” As a state senator in a predominantly black district on Chicago’s South Side, Obama curried favor with poor constituents and labor by claiming to be a single payer advocate up to the time that he declared his candidacy for national office in the U.S. Senate.  From that point on, the requirements of approval from big money political investors to succeed dictated the dropping of any and all connection to single-payer. 

[6] Noam Chomsky, Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (New York: Metropolitan, 2006,), 225. 

[7] Recall the 2005 Citigroup memo which acknowledged that the U.S. and other leading global economies were “Plutonomies,” controlled by and working for what Citigroup global strategist Ajay Kapur called “a relatively small group of rich people.”  The already super-rich would only be getting fantastically richer in coming years, Kapur approvingly predicted. Kapur also gave investors a warning on how the wonderful arrangement could spoil:  “RISKS — WHAT COULD GO WRONG? Our whole plutonomy thesis is based on the idea that the rich will keep getting richer. This thesis is not without its risks….the rising wealth gap between the rich and poor will probably at some point lead to a political backlash. Whilst the rich are getting a greater share of the wealth, and the poor a lesser share, political enfranchisement remains as it wasone person, one vote (in the plutonomies). At some point it is likely that labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich and there will be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the rich. This could be felt through higher taxation on the rich (or indirectly though higher corporate taxes/regulation) or through trying to protect indigenous [home-grown] laborers, in a push-back on globalization — either anti-immigration, or protectionism. We don’t see this happening yet, though there are signs of rising political tensions. However we are keeping a close eye on developments.” See James S. “Citigroup’s Shocking ‘Plutonomy’ Reports – h/t Michael Moore,” Daily Kos (October 4, 2009) at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/10/04/789523/-Citigroups-Shocking-Plutonomy-Reportsh-t-Michael-Moore 

[8] Noam Chomsky, “America in Decline,” New York Times Syndicate, August 5, 2011, reproduced in Chomsky, Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire, and Resistance (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012), 287. 

[9] Noam Chomsky “The Disconnect in American Democracy,” New York Times Syndicate, October 27, 2004, reproduced in Chomsky, Interventions (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007), 97. 

[10] Chomsky, Failed States, 220-226; Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 209-211; Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010), “Introduction: ‘An Instant Overhaul for Tainted Brand America,’” pp. 1-8.

[11] For details and sources, see Street, Empire’s New Clothes, 109-127. 

[12] I owe this phrase to Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,” Electric Politics, July 22, 2009.

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