Mean Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam is a Mean, Right-Handed Son of a Bitch. First published on ZNet, October 11, 2013.

“Some People Are Essential and Some People Aren’t”

The “anti-government” rhetoric of the business and political right in the long Neoliberal era (1975-present) has always been deceptive. The right and its business allies do not hate government as such. They hate what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state” – the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority. They want to “starve,” “drown” and crush those branches of government that reflect past popular victories in struggles for social justice and democracy. But the portions of the state that serve the opulent minority and dole out punishment for the poor are not the subject of their ire. The regressive and repressive “right hand of the state,” comprising the big sections of “big government” that distribute wealth upward and attack those who resist empire and inequality at home and abroad, is not their enemy. It is to remain well fed. It can in fact be expected to grow in according with the slashing of left-handed social protections and supports, as the increased insecurity that results can be expected drive ever more disadvantaged people into the military and the prisons.[1]

The current partial federal government shut-down imposed is consistent with this bias against the left hand, and for the right hand, of the state. As Aaron Brady eloquently and bitterly observed in a New Inquiry reflection bearing the title “Essentially Vicious” last week:


“The US government is a…mean…son of a bitch. When a funding shortfalls happen, they have a plan…to make sure that the least among us suffer the most…A shutdown is a moment in which…government gets to decide that some people are essential and some people aren’t… If a government shutdown meant that planes would be grounded, it would never have happened. If a government shutdown meant the NSA would turn off the lights, not a single Republican would have signed on. If it meant that soldiers would stop killing, that police would stop putting people in jail, or that any of the many things that the government does to keep the economy running would come to a halt, it would be a cold day in hell before Ted Cruz would make himself the face of the shutdown…. When the Republicans threaten to blow up the government if they don’t get everything they want, they know that the technocrats won’t let them hurt anyone who matters. The Office of Management and Budget won’t let them hurt the business community, or wreck the economy, or imperil America’s status as world’s warmonger. They know that poor people will suffer the most, and rich people will suffer the least.”[2]

Empire Abroad, Mothers Scrambling for Food at Home

Consistent with Aaron Brady’s rant, the Obama administration has recently boasted of its latest unmentionably expensive “global war on [of] terror” incursions into the purportedly sovereign nations of Somalia and Libya. Secretary of State John “Reporting for Duty” Kerry is standing in for Obama for an expensive junket to sell the regressive, eco-cidal and corporate-globalist Trans Pacific Partnership at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Indonesia. Uncle Sam’s giant Orwellian surveillance apparatus grinds and glows on despite the latest revelations from the heroic civil libertarian-in hiding Edward Snowden, pushed off the headlines by Syria and the shutdown. As the United States’ massive, high-priced military machine (accounting for half the world’s war spending) remained set on kill and the nation’s globally unmatched mass incarceration complex kept 2.3 mostly Black and Latino million prisoners locked up at huge taxpayer expense, Amanda Marcotte rightly noted six ways in which the shutdown would hit poor people and women particularly hard:

* “WIC payments…. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is on the ‘non-essential’ list of government services to be shut down starting this week. Since 53 percent of infants in the U.S. rely on WIC to meet their full nutritional needs, this is a massive shortfall that could leave a lot of babies hungry and mothers scrambling for food.”

* “College financial aid. More women than men attend college. The shutdown could cause delays to federal loans and Pell grants because some financial aid officers are being furloughed…”

* “Head Start. Twenty Head Start programs are expected to be hit right away, and if the shutdown continues, more will suffer. Children benefit from early education, of course, but women who’ve built their work schedules around the expectation of Head Start will have to scramble to come up with alternative childcare plans or skip work and, perhaps, pay.”

* “Heat assistance. People who struggle to afford food or rent also struggle to afford heat in the winter. These people tend to be disproportionately female. Temperatures are dropping, and if the shutdown drags into the colder months, poor people who depend on the Low Income Home Energy Program to heat their homes may have to make some hard decisions about whether to heat their homes or feed their kids.”

* “TANF. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families is a program overwhelmingly used by women—specifically single mothers—and states are going to have to cover the shortfall when the federal government stops paying out. Considering how many states are still trying to recover from the economic crisis, there could be problems down the road.”

 * Flu shots: … the critical role the Centers for Disease Control plays in monitoring the spread of the flu—and therefore targeting the vaccinations properly—will be seriously hampered by the shutdown. More flu means more workers having to take sick days. And women are more likely to take sick days to care for a child or a parent.”[3]

With 700,000 federal workers thrown out of paid employment for the time being, the demands on these and other supposedly non-essential programs can only be expected to rise.


“Some Kind of Crime Against Nature”

Brady might have deepened his sense of how “essentially vicious” the shutdown is by adding that it was launched to stop millions of Americans from attaining government-enabled access to health insurance under Barack Obama’s corporatist and conservative Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Teapublicans do not hate the ACA because it is corporatist or even because of its much-bemoaned “individual mandate,” which requires everyone who can afford it to be insured. They hate the ACA because it (modestly) taxes affluent Americans and expands health care access and coverage for those who can’t afford health insurance under the previous system. “When you talk to [House Republicans] privately,” Congressman Alan Grayson [D-FL)) told Salon last week, “what you find is that if they could repeal Medicare they would. If they could repeal Medicaid they would,” along with the requirement that emergency rooms treat patients who can’t pay for care. “They are literally offended by the idea that people would get the care they need to stay healthy or alive even though they can’t afford it. They regard it as some kind of crime against nature,” Grayson said.[4]

Fading “Lines of Class Authority”

Still, we should definitely not exaggerate the extent to which Teapublicans’ supposed “war on government” is proceeding in accord with the wishes of Big Business. A recent Wall Street Journal news item is titled “Fiscal Gridlock Worries Business.” It reports that The Aerospace Industries Association has called the shutdown “a tragic mistake,” warning of significant industry layoffs. Mortgage bankers have voiced worries that home lending and sales will be jammed up by lost access to government data at the Federal Housing Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.[5] A different WSJ piece titled “Prospect of Long Shutdown Stokes Concern” notes that “the risk of a prolonged closure that morphs into a battle over the nation’s borrowing limits is raising concerns among [top corporate and investment firm] economists and executives.”[6]

The biggest danger has to with the coming due date for Congress to raise the debt-ceiling “It’s true in general that Wall Street dictates our economic policy,” Grayson tells Salon, “but in this case neither [JP Morgan Chase President and CEO] Jamie Dimon nor anybody else from Wall Street seems to have been able to get the Republicans to understand the obvious resulting difficulties that would come from the largest debtor in the entire world suddenly defaulting on its debt.”

Alan Grayson says that “many Republicans in the House still regard the United States defaulting on its debt as a good thing, despite the fact that they’ve had one presentation after another in their own caucus from Wall Street bigwigs explaining the utter chaos” that would result.[7] Left Business Observer publisher and veteran watcher Doug Henwood recently told Salon’s Josh Eidelson that he’s been “impressed by the erosion of what I thought were the lines of class authority among the American elite. Normally you’d think that [Goldman Sachs CEO] Lloyd Blankfein et al. could go and sit these Republican backbenchers down and remind them of their class duty. But that doesn’t seem to be happening this time.”[8]

It’s no small matter what might occur. As Henwood noted three days ago:

“The last thing that Big Business wants to see is something that threatens the status of Treasury bonds. They don’t want to threaten the status of the dollar as reserve currency. They don’t want to rock the image of the United States as the most stable capitalist power in the world. Even though the financial crisis essentially originated here, money still flowed to the United States then because it seemed safer than everywhere else. The big boys don’t want to endanger that status….A technical default might not have immediately disastrous consequences, but it would certainly erode that perception of the U.S. as a safe haven. I think they understand it would reduce the status and power of the U.S. in the world, and they don’t want to see that…. “

“The Treasury bond market is at the core of American financial economic power. It’s the gold standard of the global securities markets. It’s the safe haven in times of trouble, and if that safe haven loses some of that safe haven status, something happens to U.S. power in the world…. it would promote an awful lot of disorder, and quite possibly a global financial crisis, and another return to deep recession….The consequences of default could be quite tumultuous.”

But the “Tea Party people [don’t] particularly care about that,” indicating that “The American elite has lost control, or is losing control, of some of the core mechanisms of its power.”[9]

A recent exchange between the liberal columnist Ezra Klein and the liberal political scientist Theda Skocpol on the Washington Post’s Web site is consistent with Grayson and Henwood’s observation: 

“Klein: But then there’s the funding world, and a lot of the key Republican funders are in the business community and they don’t want this shutdown, much less a debt-ceiling breach.”

“Skocpol: They’re so passé! Everybody on the left thinks business controls the Republican Party. I’ve startled a few people by saying that we should be so lucky! Mainstream businesses don’t want a government shutdown or a default. I think some of those business forces are waking up and realizing they’ve spent a lot of money on folks they don’t have much influence with.”[10]

The Klein article in which this exchange is found bears an interesting title: “The Left Thinks Business Controls the Republican Party. They’re Wrong.”

A “Rational” New/Old “Southern Notable” Strategy

By Grayson’s account, Tea Party Republicans are drinking more than tea. He alleges that they have been literally intoxicated while voting for the shutdown.[11] True or not, that charge fits the sentiments of many progressives, who accuse the “Newest Right”[12] that holds such strong sway in the U.S. House of being destructively irrational. Epitomizing this narrative, the leading liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls them “The Crazy Party.”[13] It is his hope that the big financial money on Wall Street can get the “crazy” Teapublicans to stop their “nonsense” before it’s too late.[14]

But what if the Tea Party right isn’t crazy or stupid? The insightful and provocative liberal commentator Michael Lind argues that the Tea Party’s fake-populist Republican radicalism is widely misunderstood in progressive and liberal circles. According to Lind, the Tea Party’s disproportionately Southern, white, and well off legislators and activists represent southern white capitalist elites. The Tea Party’s “social base consists of what, in other countries, are called the ‘local notables’—provincial elites whose power and privileges are threatened from above by a stronger central government they do not control and from below by the local poor and the local working class.” Further:

“Even though, like the Jacksonians and Confederates of the nineteenth century, they have allies in places like Wisconsin and Massachusetts, the dominant members of the Newest Right are white Southern local notables—the Big Mules, as the Southern populist Big Jim Folsom once described the lords of the local car dealership, country club and chamber of commerce. These are not the super-rich of Silicon Valley or Wall Street (although they have Wall Street allies). The Koch dynasty rooted in Texas notwithstanding, those who make up the backbone of the Newest Right are more likely to be millionaires than billionaires, more likely to run low-wage construction or auto supply businesses than multinational corporations. They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities.”

By Lind’s account, the true blood Teapublicans are rationally enacting a new version of the “very old, chiefly-Southern Jefferson-Jackson right” strategy for “maximizing the political power and wealth of white local notables who find themselves living in states, and eventually a nation, with present or potential nonwhite majorities.” Jim Crow segregation and open Bull Connor terror is no longer available to these new Jacksonians but their “tool kit” is richly continuous with that of the “older Southern white right.” It includes

* Partisan racial gerrymandering to make the “the South far more Republican in its political representation than it really is in terms of voters.

* Filibusters to “paralyze a federal government they cannot control.”

* Racist vote-roll cleansing in the form of a “fictitious epidemic of voter fraud being used as an excuse for onerous voter registration requirements which have the effect, and the manifest purpose, of disenfranchising disproportionately poor blacks and Latinos.”

* Conditioning support for immigration on the condition “that ‘guest workers’ and amnestied illegal immigrants not be allowed to vote or become citizens any time soon [since] “in the twenty-first century, as in the twentieth and nineteenth, the Southern ideal is a society in which local white elites lord it over a largely-nonwhite population of poor workers who can’t vote.”

* The localization and privatization of federal programs since “the white local notables of the South and their allies in other regions…expect to lose control of the federal government to a new, largely-nonwhite national electoral majority…Turning over federal programs to the states allows Southern states controlled by local conservative elites to make those programs less generous—thereby attracting investment to their states by national and global corporations seeking low wages.”

From the self-interested perspective of the white southern millionaire business class and its allies across the nation, there’s no “extremist” intoxication required for shutting down federal programs when (thanks to demographic trends) they “expect to lose control of the federal government to a new, largely-nonwhite national electoral majority”. Their “anti-government” stand makes perfect, timeworn, and conservative Jefferson-Jackson-Redeemer sense to them – like a nice measured glass of bourbon on ice on a warm southern plantation porch.[15]

Limits of Rationality, Credibility

There is little “rational” about the fact that “the white working class has voted for [the militantly ant-union/anti-welfare/pro-low-wage] Republicans ever since Nixon”[16]( not to say that the Democrats have done much if anything to deserve working class votes over the last half century[17]). And one has to wonder how well southern and western Big Mule millionaires are going to make out if the nation is kicked by default into “a huge financial crisis, dwarfing the crisis set off by the failure of Lehman Brothers five years ago.”[18]

The real test of Teapublican rationality and its relationship to the wider health of the national economy is coming next week, for Krugman is surely right to warn that “hitting the ceiling would force a huge, immediate spending cut, almost surely pushing America back into recession” and that “missed payments on existing U.S. government debt” could have “terrifying consequences” for the national and global financial system.

But then, the Wall Street emissaries who are trying to “talk sense” to Teapublicans have little credibility when they claim to speak for the full faith and credit of the United States. The financial institutions have been dismantling America’s once proud manufacturing economy and social and economic infrastructure, de-developing the nation for decades They contributed richly to the economic crisis that helped – along with changing electoral demographics, the 2008 Obama election, and the mass media – bring the Newest Right Tea Party phenomenon into being. The economic super-elite has long found the “extreme” right useful as a sort of advance shock troop force to roll back union power, government regulation, and the social safety net and advance neoliberal privatization, “deficit reduction” and (yet) tax cuts for rich.  As Henwood notes, “To some degree the Big Business interests are paying a price for having relied on these [right Republican] characters in the first place.[19]” Now the economic super-elite wants to rein in the Frankenstein it helped create, which boasts its own paranoid-style mass media, which has been stirring the FOX News base into a frothing tizzy with dire warnings about “Marxist Obamacare” and “out of control federal spending” and “Chinese takeover” for more than four years now.

“A Ray of Hope That Has Buoyed Stock Markets”

Personally, I think the big money masters will prevail. A succinct item in today’s New York Times reports that:

“House Republicans gathered Thursday morning to discuss a plan to lift the government’s statutory borrowing limit temporarily to allow for negotiations on a package of deficit reduction and tax reform proposals that could lead to a reopening of the government and an end to the threat of government default…House Republicanleaders jumped on the plan, presented on Wednesday by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee. Meantime, a group of Republican senators has begun meeting with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, to find a bipartisan solution to the twin fiscal impasses….The senators are examining a year-long resolution funding the government at levels that reflect automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, but with added flexibility to help government agencies and departments deal with the tight budgets. The debt ceiling would also be raised…A repeal of a tax on medical devices would lend a face-saving fig leaf for conservatives trying to take a bite out of the president’s health care law. And Republicans are eying new income verification procedures to limit access to the health exchanges under the new law…Democratic aides said they are a positive start — and a ray of hope that has buoyed stock markets and lifted the gloom that descended over Washington nine days ago when the government shut down.”[20]

This would appear to be the opening of a path to a Big Business-friendly fix to the latest elite-manufactured fiscal crisis, signed in shared bipartisan commitment to right-handed state-capitalist austerity and without a devastating blow for U.S. financial and corporate capitalism. Nothing is guaranteed, of course. Still, it is not unreasonable to expect an at least temporary respite so that the deeply conservative Obama Democrats and the radically reactionary G.O.P. can work up some nice neoliberal “deficit reduction” (“grand bargain”) measures – all in abject defiance of technically irrelevant public opinion and in accord with Big Business interests that do (sorry, Theda Skocpol) in fact control both parties, however imperfectly, at the end of the day. 

P.S. Just as I was logging into Yahoo to submit this essay to ZNet (at 11 AM CST, Thursday, October 10, 2013), I saw this headline on Yahoo News: “New GOP Offer: Temporarily Raise the Debt Limit, Then Negotiate Over Shutdown.” According to Yahoo reporter Chris Moody, “The proposal would raise the federal borrowing limit for six weeks and be passed before Oct. 17, the date the Treasury Department says is the final day the government can make payments on all its debts.” I am reminded of the old Jim Croce lyric: “you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind.” 

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, January 2014).



1. Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance (New York: Free Press, 1998), 2; Paul Street, Empire and Inequality: America and the World (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004), xiii-xix, 150-51, 171.

2. Aaron Brady, “Essentially Vicious,” New Inquiry (October 2, 2013), Emphasis added.

3. Amanda Marcotte, “Seven Ways the Government Shutdown Will Hit Women Hardest,” Slate (October 1, 2013),

4. John Eidelson, “Grayson Blames Shutdown on GOP Literally Drinking on the Job,” Salon (October 1, 2013), Emphasis added.

5. John D. McKinnon, “Fiscal Gridlock Worries Business,” Wall Street Journal, October 7, 2013, A7.

6. Sudeep Reddy and Brenda Cronin, Wall Street Journal, October 7, A6.

7. Eidelson. “Grayson Blames.”

8. John Eidelson, “Tea Party’s Shutdown Lunacy: Avenging the Surrender of the South,” Salon (October 9, 2013),

9. Eidelson, “Tea Party’s Shutdown Lunacy.”

10. Ezra Klein, “The Left Thinks Business Controls the Republican Party. They’re Wrong,” Washington Post Wonkblog (October 8, 2013),

11. Eidelson, “Grayson Blames Shutdown.”

12. Political commentator Michael Lind’s term for the radical right Republicans of the current millennium. See Michael Lind, “Tea Party Radicalism is Misunderstood: Meet the ‘Newest Right,’” Salon, October 6, 2013,

13. Paul Krugman, “The Crazy Party,” New York Times, September 19, 2013.

14. Paul Krugman, “Rebels Without a Clue,” New York Times, Sept. 30, 2013.

15. Lind, “Tea Party Radicalism.”

16. “The white working class often votes for the Newest Right, but then the white working class has voted for Republicans ever since Nixon. For all its Jacksonian populist rhetoric, the Newest Right is no more a rebellion of the white working class than was the original faux-populist Jacksonian movement, led by rich slaveowners like Andrew Jackson and agents of New York banks like Martin Van Buren.” Lind, “Tea Party Radicalism.”

17. See Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008), 3-12.

18. Paul Krugman, Rebels Without a Clue,” New York Times, Sept. 30, 2013).

19. Eidelson, “Tea Party’s Shutdown Lunacy.”

20. Jonathan Weisman, “House G.O.P. Discusses Short-Term Fix on Debt Limit,” New York Times, October 10, 2013,

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By | 2013-10-23T13:30:57+00:00 October 4th, 2013|Articles|