March 23, 2004

Kerry vs. Kerry-lite

By Stephen Gowans

Some advice to politically Left Americans. Most of you will cast a vote for John Kerry in November. There's not much doubt about it. And the reason you'll be backing Kerry is (a) you assume nothing could be worse than Bush, (b) the Democrats must be marginally better, because…well, because they're Democrats, (c) pressuring elites doesn't seem to be working and you can't think of anything else to do to stop "Bush's" drive to war, and (d) all those people who keep warning you about lesser evilism, can't seem to come up with anything better. So Kerry's your man. Oh sure, some of you admire Kucinich. Others even think well of Nader. But you know Kerry's going to be your go-to-guy come November.

Okay, fine. Leave it at that. When the time comes, head down to the polling station, and cast your vote. But in the meantime, shut up about it, because, just between you and me, you're starting to look a little silly, twisting yourself into knots to explain why it is that all the things you used to say about the Democrats being the same as the Republicans, no longer apply.

Of course, you're not going to give up talking the talk, even if you'll be miles away walking smack dab in the middle of your comfort zone. There will be no going cold turkey on all the leftist shibboleths you've been spouting for decades. Like Noam Chomsky, you'll still point to the Democrats as nothing more than the second business party [1], kind of like Thing Two to the Republican's Thing One. And you'll dismiss your go-to-guy as nothing more than Bush-lite, but hey, a lite beer's still better than the real thing when you're trying to get rid of those love handles, right?

Except I'm trying to figure out why everyone keeps saying Kerry is Bush-lite [2], rather than Bush in a different suit, or that Bush is Kerry-lite. Look at Kerry's record.

For one thing, as much as Bush, Kerry's part of the ruling class – that privileged, hyper-rich stratum of the population that organizes the domestic and foreign policy of the United States in its own interests. Not only have corporations showered more contributions on Kerry than on any other member of the millionaires' club that doubles as the Senate, he's also the richest millionaire in the club. He and his wife Teresa Heinz Kerry, boast a net worth of between $200 and $840 million [3].

But Kerry's wealth and his fitting into corporate circles like a CEO into an oversize corner office, isn't all that makes him, at best, a dead ringer for Bush. His policies do, too. Kerry proposes "a bold vision of progressive internationalism," a "tough-minded strategy of international engagement and leadership" in the tradition of such renowned peaceniks as Woodrow Wilson (WWI), Harry Truman (Hiroshima) and John F. Kennedy (Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs) [4].

Which may be why "Bush's" drive to war, which we're told, must be stopped by voting for Kerry, seems to be Kerry's drive to war, too [5].  After all, he voted for the war on Afghanistan, and supports the occupation [6]. He voted for the war on Iraq, and says "we now have a solemn obligation to complete the mission" [7]. He promises to add 40,000 troops to the Army and to spend more on defense than the Republicans, and more on homeland security [8]. Yeah, he sure sounds different from Bush, though not in any better way.

What's more, not only is he prepared to use military force unilaterally, ("People will know I'm tough and I'm prepared to do what is necessary to defend the United States of America, and that includes the unilateral deployment of troops if necessary," [9] he's prepared "to target and capture terrorists even before they act" and says he "will not hesitate to order direct military action when needed to capture and destroy terrorist groups and their leaders" [10] -- his own doctrine of preventive war.

Plus he says he will spend more on the National Endowment for Democracy [11], an organization that does openly what the CIA used to do covertly -- meddle in the affairs of countries like Haiti, Venezuela, Serbia and Cuba, that put the interests of the domestic population ahead of those of corporate America and investors who can boast net worths of hundreds of millions of dollars, like, let's see...well, like Kerry.

And in case you thought Kerry draws his advisors from a different stratum of the population than Bush does, you should know that his national finance chair, Louis Susman, is vice-chairperson of investment banking for Citigroup [12], and that his foreign policy adviser, Rand Beers, worked for Bush's National Security Council until about a year ago [13].

So explain to me how there's anything lite about Kerry?

My favorite Kerry quote is, "I could never agree with those in the antiwar movement who dismissed our troops [in Vietnam] as war criminals or our country as the villain in the drama" [14].

As for Iraq, if Kerry has a problem with Bush, it's that he didn't drag France, Germany and Russia into the war, preferring to strike a grabby, it's all mine, pose, rather than the "let's divide up the loot" approach the Democrats favor. Apparently, a gang rape is better than a rape carried out by a lone assailant, which, I gather, would make a gang rapist a rapist-lite, and therefore more worthy of our backing than a rapist who goes it alone.

But, for the record, Washington hasn't gone it alone in Iraq, managing to cobble together a coalition, though one lacking France, Germany and Russia, whose backing, in some perverted twist of reasoning, is supposed to have invested the rape of Iraq with legitimacy. Apparently, if you can lure other renowned rapists into a gang rape, it gives the whole sordid affair moral weight.

So, you'll have to excuse me, but I don't see any redeeming difference between Kerry and the current Kerry-lite occupant of the White House, not even a razor-thin one, at least not one that would lead me to conclude that Kerry's better, if only marginally. And if there's any logic in the Chomsky claim -- which he's been making for a while now -- that a minuscule difference can make a big difference (because the president has so much power, Kerry being even a little better than Bush can have fairly substantial implications), I'm afraid it has eluded me, as well. Is it just me, or is Chomsky staring to sound like those corporate PR flaks, who rather than not even trying to claim black is white, figure their forensic skills are so finely honed, that they can pull it off?

And has Michael Parenti, another high-profile American leftist, joined the club? Of course, he has. He, along with Chomksy and a gaggle of other left luminaries, wrote a "letter to the left" sometime late last year, that attributed the drive to war to Bush [15], as if wars of aggression haven't been a fixture of US foreign policy, and have suddenly sprung to life fully formed under the Bush administration's careful nurturing. They coyly avoided saying that the Left should vote Democrat in the next election, but the message was plain, and odd, coming from a number of people who say they're radicals, but then, maybe the meaning of radical changes in "times when you have to pursue coalition politics against the forces like the kind we're facing in the White House today" [16].

Not so many years ago -- four to be exact -- pursuing coalition politics wasn't deemed to be so important. Back then Michael Moore was directing a Rage Against the Machine video that depicted Al Gore as a clone of George Bush, and he, and a whole bunch of other US Left luminaries, were exhorting people to vote for the anti-clone, Nader, none more zealously than Moore himself. But what made impeccable sense back then, now seems to make no sense at all. Nader's been dumped faster than a date with active genital herpes, and Moore slunk back to the Democrats soon after the election, his self-imposed estrangement from his political home passed off as temporary insanity. Eventually, he decided to back the real Butcher of Belgrade, Wesley Clark, for a run at the Democratic nomination, touting a war criminal, on record as supporting the rape of Iraq, as the peace candidate the anti-war Left could really get behind.

My logic isn't infallible, but it seems to me if we accept Moore's claim that Al Gore is a clone of George W. Bush, then Gore as president would have been like Bush as president. In other words, there would have been a war on Afghanistan, which seems pretty likely given that 99 percent of the establishment, plus a fair number of liberals, think the whole affair was a pretty good thing. And we can be sure Gore would have carried out some kind of hostility against Iraq aimed at regime change, since, after all, this had been the policy of two administrations, one of which Gore belonged to. All of which makes one wonder why Moore has decided, along with Chomsky and Parenti, that coalition politics - - that is a vote for the Democrats -- has suddenly become vitally important. It's as if they're all kicking themselves for not voting for Gore when they had the chance -- even if he is a clone of Bush. Figure that one out. Maybe it's a poor grasp of logic. All of them talk about the necessity of voting for the candidate most likely to defeat the dangerous and repellent Bush, assuming quite unjustifiably that his successor won't be equally or more dangerous and repellent.

Radical, if it means anything, should refer to the root of a problem, and given that aggressive foreign policies have been pursued by every administration, and elsewhere in the world, by governments of various political hues, it seems highly unlikely that the drive to war is an anomaly of a group of people in power. It seems far more likely to be systemic, and therefore, the means to stop the drive to war must be systemic, as well. And yet the word, radical, it would seem, now means acting to replace one group of people drawn from the ruling class, who seek to shape the international security order in line with US export and investment interests, with another group of people drawn from the same ruling class, who aim to exercise US power boldly in the tradition of Wilson, Truman and Kennedy, to do the same.

Parenti, who talks a militant leftist line, says elections matter, but boasts that he coined the phrase "two-party monopolies" when he wrote, "Democracy For the Few," [17] which would kind of suggest Parenti was thinking that elections don't matter and a vote for the Democrats equals a vote for the Republicans, or if you extend the logic, that the drive to war does not belong uniquely to the Republicans but is owned by the monopoly.  So you see elections don't matter, but they do matter. Figure that one out. I can't decide whether Parenti's starting to remind me of a guy who writes cryptic fortune cookie fortunes, or a retired Sprite salesman who's been claiming for the last four decades that Coke and Pepsi are the same, but has just put in a call to the regional Pepsi sales office demanding a Pepsi machine be installed outside his local public gym, because all that's there now is a Coke machine, and he can't stand the taste of Coke.

If the US, in Parenti's words, is a democracy for the few, dominated by the super rich like Kerry and Kerry-lite, what difference do elections make? At this point the exponents of the view that elections matter (well, at least this election matters) step forward and say, "Yes, but the Bush Republicans are a particularly vicious wing of the ruling class, and while the Democrats are only marginally better, they are better all the same, and therefore any project that seeks to put a Democrat in the White House is meliorative."

Let's ignore the reality that this is like saying death by guillotine is better than death by hanging, because a hanging death can be long, drawn out, and gruesome, whereas the guillotine is swift and certain and marginally more humane. By this reasoning we're supposed to support death by guillotine and believe we've accomplished something if we thereby avoid the hangman's noose. Either way, you end up with a nasty neck-ache, though on the bright side, it only lasts for a fraction of a second. But I'm not at all sure that the premise -- that the Democrats are marginally better -- is sound.

It's a canard, really -- part of the mythology of the Democrats. It may have been true seventy years ago, but you'd be hard pressed to show how any Democrat in power has differed from Republicans in power on economic or foreign policy since, and certainly now. And yet the fairy tale lives on, invulnerable to the facts. But then it serves a useful intellectual function - keeping Americans of the political left from wrestling with a vexing and troubling question: What the hell can we do, if we can't vote Democrat? Join the Communist Party? No, they're voting Democrat too.

What can be done, is to start to ask why it is that no matter who's in power, Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, and overseas, conservative or Socialist, foreign and economic policy always seems to head in the same direction: foreign policy is aggressive, and economic policy abets profit-making at the expense of wages, working conditions and social security, as it must. It doesn't seem to be the greed or ignorance or viciousness of a group of people in power that accounts for this uniformity of direction, any more than the greed or ignorance or viciousness of CEOs account for layoffs, which isn't to say that some CEO's aren't greedy or ignorant or vicious, only that it doesn't matter whether they are.

It's like baseball. It doesn't matter what the players think of the game, what their aims are, how they feel. All the matters is how many runs are scored. If they underperform, they're benched, sent down to the minors, or sent packing [18]. Imagine a CEO who decides to keep workers on, at the expense of his company's profits. He won't last long, suffering the corporate equivalent of being pulled from the game, banished to the minors, or cut loose from the team.

The same applies to leaders of governments in societies integrated into the global capitalist system, dominated materially and ideologically by the business community. If they lean to the Left, chances are they rose to power by progressively bartering away their principles for respectability and votes [19]. They can be counted on to pursue corporate interests at home and abroad. If by some unlikely confluence of events, they have risen to power without first arriving at a modus vivendi with the corporate class, their tenure is likely to be short-lived, and unquestionably rocky. Which means they too will end up like the baseball player who fails to add to the tally of runs --  given a one-way ticket to the bush leagues, or worst.

The news, in recent days, offers three examples of leaders who have been sent, or may soon be sent, to the showers.

South Korea's President Roh Moo Hyun has been impeached for a minor transgression, tantamount to being shot, according to Kim Dong Yune, a Seoul-based political analyst, for a minor theft [20]. Roh's real crime:  He "came to power promising to be South Korea's Robin Hood" and "has embraced a left-leaning agenda over his year in office, including carving out a path more independent of Washington, establishing warmer ties with North Korea and China, and enacting new policies to empower the poor and rein in the rich." Roh "levied more taxes on the rich while spending billions of dollars on new government housing for the poor," [21] something that will never secure him a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced from power by what was almost certainly a US-engineered coup. He angered the business community by raising the minimum daily wage beyond $1.30, and failed to privatize state-owned enterprises, a definite no-no if you expect to keep your place on the team roster.

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, once ousted in a short-lived US-backed coup, hangs on to office despite the fierce opposition of Washington and a domestic business class backed by contributions from the National Endowment for Democracy. John Kerry questions Chavez's commitment to democracy, noting that Chavez is a friend of Fidel Castro [22]. By this reasoning, George Bush must be a military dictator because the US government counts Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf as an ally.

Chavez has implemented a program of land reform, imposed a ban on oil privatization, invited Cuban doctors into Venezuela's slums, and is using the state-owned oil firm, Pdvsa, to pursue a social spending program. That's why Washington, and Venezuela's wealthy, are trying to cut him loose from the team.

In a word, the problem -- and you had better send the kids out of the room before I say this -- is capitalism. Yeah capitalism, the C-word.  Not neo-liberalism, or globalization, or the Washington Consensus, or corporate rule, or any of the other synonyms dreamed up to protect anyone from really striking at the heart of the problem.

Radical Left groups say they're opposed to neo-liberalism and against globalization. So are social democrats and a whole lot of liberals, even if social democratic and liberal governments have implemented neo-liberal policies. Like baseball players, it doesn't matter what they think of the game, only whether they play it. So, are some radical Leftists social democrats, or nothing but liberals in disguise? Based on Chomsky's and Parenti's support of Kerry, it's difficult to think they're not.

But if capitalism is the problem, rather than the policy choices of Kerry versus those of Kerry-lite -- which are indistinguishable in any important way, anyway -- what can be done? There's nothing that can be done now, but much that can be done on an ongoing basis, most particularly political organization under the direction of a party that has the energy, pluck and resolve to replace the existing system with one that doesn't depend on foreign expansion to resolve its dilemmas and sets the fulfilment of human requirements, not capital accumulation, as the primary purpose of economic activity

In the meantime, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to back a candidate who must, and will, carry on in the tradition of the monopoly (to use Parenti's words), with policies as grim, reactionary and aggressive, or more so, than those of the current occupant of the White House. At best, voting for Kerry is a pointless act, and at worst, a backward act, to the extent it fosters the illusion that change can be achieved by changing the name plate on the Oval Office desk. Contrary to the reigning mythology, doing something pointless is not better than doing nothing, where nothing means refusing to cast a ballot for either Thing One or Thing Two. And calling Emperor Moore's, Parenti's and Chomsky's strutting about without their clothes on, what it is, can't hurt either.

1. "Chomsky backs 'Bush-lite' Kerry," The Guardian, March 20, 2004.

2. Ibid.

3. Center for Responsive Politics, cited in "The fallacy of the 'anybody but Bush' movement," Workers World, March 25,
2004.

4. Mark Hand, "It's Time to Get Over It: Kerry Tells Anti-War Movement to Move On," www.counterpunch.com, February
18, 2004.

5. "Bush can be stopped: A letter to the Left," http://www.petitiononline.com/LttrLeft/petition.html

6. John Pilger, "Bush Or Kerry? Look Closely And The Danger Is The Same," New Statesman, March 04, 2004; "The fallacy of the 'anybody but Bush' movement," Workers World, March 25, 2004.

7. From Kerry's Web site, as cited in "The fallacy of the 'anybody but Bush' movement," Workers World, March 25, 2004.

8. "On foreign policy, Kerry is not far from Bush," The Globe and Mail, March 3, 2004.

9. "Kerry Condemns Bush for Failing to Back Aristide," The New York Times, March 7, 2004.

10. Willian Blum, "If Kerry's the answer, what's the question?" www.counterpunch.com, March 2, 2004.

11. Ibid.

12. "The fallacy of the 'anybody but Bush' movement," Workers World, March 25, 2004.

13. Gabriel Kolko, "The US must be isolated and constrained," www.counterpunch.org, March 12-14, 2004.

14. Mark Hand, "It's Time to Get Over It: Kerry Tells Anti-War Movement to Move On," www.counterpunch.com, February
18, 2004.

15. "Bush can be stopped: A letter to the Left," http://www.petitiononline.com/LttrLeft/petition.html

16. Michael Parenti, interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, February 23, 2004, <Http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=04/02/23/1528222>

17. Ibid.

18. The analogy was originally used by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy in "Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order," Monthly Review Press, 1966, p. 41.

19. This is paraphrasing Paul Sweezy in The Theory of Capitalist Development. Monthly Review Press, 1970, p. 352.

20. "Jubilation, Rage in S. Korea Impeachment of President Exposes Deep Ideological Rift," The Washington Post, March 13,
2004.

21. Ibid.

22. "Senator John Kerry's Statement on Venezuela," The Miami Herald, March 23, 2004. http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/nation/8255944.htm

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Stephen Gowans