Why Are the “Adults in the Room” So Awful?
It’s common among centrists to describe themselves — in contrast to the “far Left” and “far Right” — as the “rational adults” who can compromise and get things done. The “rational adult” trope usually appears in conjunction with “Horseshoe Theory,” according to which wisdom and reasonableness inhere in the political center and deviation from the center is identified with greater “extremism” the further to the Left or Right one goes.
In fact Michael Arnovitz (“Thinking About Hillary — A Plea for Reason,” The Policy, June 12) comes right out and says that, because the Right and Left criticize Clinton for opposite, mutually inconsistent reasons, her critics must be wrong — presumably meaning that splitting the difference between them puts her in the Mama Bear position at the exact center, which is “just right.”
The problem is that centrism, as such, has no content. It has no meaning, in a two party system, except in relation to the territory staked out by the two mainstream political parties at any given time. But in fact the positions taken by those two parties are neither mutually exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. And the great majority of issues they agree on — the fundamental structural assumptions of corporate capitalism and American global hegemony — never become visible as “issues” at all because they’re not in dispute.
The “two sides” reflect the range of acceptable disagreement within a ruling class that shares most of its interests and assumptions in common. In fact even bringing up the concept of a ruling class, or of the basic structure of our system as reflecting the interests of that ruling class, is enough to make Chris Matthews clutch his pearls over “tinfoil hats.”
So that means both “centrism” and “extremism” are defined entirely in terms of the status quo. A centrist is one who implicitly accepts the normality and legitimacy of the existing system and its power structures. Any radical structural critique that looks into the role of class interest, race or gender privilege or the exercise of unaccountable power in its creation, is “extremist.”
“Moderates” are defined entirely in terms of how closely they adhere to a system regarded as normal, natural and inevitable in its fundamental nature, and “extremists” by how far they deviate from it.
Any “reform” that involves tinkering around the edges of a power structure without fundamentally changing it, and can be implemented by the same classes of people who are running the present system, will be classified as “moderate.” Any proposal that involves changing the fundamental power-structure and disempowering the current ruling class is “radical.”
Radical structural analysis refuses to treat the existing state of things as something that’s “just that way,” or “what most people want.” It sees the exercise of power for what it is — being in the interest of some at the expense of others. And it is therefore labeled “extremist” by the “centrists” who hold power.
Some of the most ardent centrists — like the smarmy Chris Matthews — dismiss any such radical structural critiques as “conspiracy theories.” On a late 2010 episode of the Matthews show, a guest who opposed the new TSA scanners and associated peep-or-grope regime claimed that the scanners were actually ineffective and mentioned that a number of high-ranking Homeland Security officials had stock in the company that made them. Matthews was near-apoplectic in denouncing this “conspiracy theory” — despite his own 30-second spots on MSNBC quoting Eisenhower on the Military-Industrial Complex.
So we wind up with a policy-making elite who limit themselves to a set of alternatives ranging from M to N, governed by what C. Wright Mills called “Crackpot Realism.” As Buckminster Fuller put it: They’re trying to solve problems with the same level of thinking that created those problems. Ivan Illich described such people’s approach as “attempting to solve a crisis by escalation.”
A good example of the latter is urban planners, who attempt to solve the traffic congestion caused by car-centered monoculture development by building new freeways and bypasses — which simply generate more traffic to and from the new suburbs and strip malls that grow up at every cloverleaf along the new subsidized highways. Or the American national security state, which deals with terrorism (the product of blowback from previous imperial intervention) through new interventions which generate even more terrorism.
Although centrists see themselves as the “adults in the room,” who see what must be done and don’t draw back from doing it, they also pride themselves on being the “real” humanitarians and idealists. To quote Michael Lofgren:
The benefit of crackpot realism is that the ordinary prudence of advocating avoidance of war can be depicted either as sloppy and unrealistic sentimentalism or as the irresponsible avoidance of the burdens and duties of a superpower in a dangerous world. In its refined form, crackpot realism wears the camouflage of idealism: military invasions are really aimed at humanitarian rescue, spreading democracy, or peacekeeping. In those cases, the crackpot realist can even affect a morally censorious tone: How can any serious person be in favor of letting Saddam Hussein remain president of Iraq? Or Bashir al Assad in Syria? Or whoever the Hitler du jour might be.
Centrism is utterly unself-critical, insofar as it ignores its own status as a component in a legitimizing ideology. Any system of power includes a cultural reproduction apparatus that tends to create the kinds of “human resources” who accept as normal and given the structure of power under which they live.
As part of a legitimizing ideology, centrist Horseshoe Theory is guilty of — as @NerbieDansers, a friend on Twitter, pointed out — “constant erasure of violence for which the reasonable, moderate center is responsible”; instead it “turns violence into a function of mere distance from a mythic peaceful center.” The system represented by the center is not simply “responsible” for violence; massive levels of violence have been, and are, entailed in establishing and maintaining the system of power that centrists recognize as normal.
The present system is not some natural or inevitable fact of nature that “just happened,” because it makes the most sense to do things that way. It is a thing with a beginning, a history — and (with apologies to Marx) it’s a history written in letters of blood and fire. As I have written elsewhere:
Bear in mind that the corporate-state power structure didn’t come about naturally or spontaneously. It came about through conscious, massive application of political power over the past 150 years.
From the Gilded Age on, the state intervened massively in the market to create a society dominated by giant, centralized organizations like government agencies and corporations, and later by centralized state education, large universities, and nonprofit foundations. When this state-created and state-subsidized centralized industrial economy became plagued with chronic excess capacity and underconsumption, the state turned toward policies to keep it going. This included a domestic economy centered on federal spending to absorb surplus capital through such massive state spending projects as the Interstate Highway System, a military-industrial complex that ate up huge amounts of surplus industrial output, and a foreign policy aimed at forcibly incorporating the markets and resources of the entire planet as a sink for surplus capital and output.
At the time the system was being imposed by the state, there was large-scale resistance by a general population that didn’t accept it as normal. From the 1870s through WWI, a major part of the population refused to accept as normal a situation in which they worked as wage labors for large authoritarian hierarchies. Movements such as the farm populist movement and the Knights of Labor amounted to near-insurrections, and such measures as the post-Haymarket repression and Cleveland’s suppression of the Pullman Strike constituted counter-revolution.
After the insurrection was defeated, the white-collar bureaucrats controlling corporate and state hierarchies adopted an educational system aimed at processing people who accepted the structure of power as normal. The official public education movement, advocates of “100% Americanism,” and the like, aimed at creating “human resources” who were “adjusted” to accept authoritarianism and hierarchy as normal, and to “comply” with any orders coming from an apparatchik behind a desk — whether in a classroom, factory, or government office.
But we don’t have to look at history to see how much violence is at the heart of the system that these “reasonable centrists” take for granted. The system requires massive ongoing violence for its preservation. Just pick up a copy of William Blum’s KILLING HOPE and look at the United States’ post-WWII record of invading countries, overthrowing governments, backing military coups and sponsoring death squads. And the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that has prevailed for the past few decades has been defined around the legitimacy of such intervention. Even so-called “liberals” share the consensus that, as Chomsky put it, “America owns the world.”
The “reasonable centrists,” for their part, are typically shameless apologists for this consensus and the bloody intervention it promotes. The current news is full of examples of what garbage human beings these “adults in the room” really are.
At Business Insider, Josh Barro (“Donald Trump and the GOP’s crisis,” May 3) contrasts Trump to “adults in the room” like Jeb Bush. The first three of Trump’s deviations from the alleged moderate orthodoxies of the donor class that Barro mentions are “opposing free trade, promising to protect entitlements from cuts, [and] questioning the value of America’s commitment to military alliances.” The fourth, challenging the growing acceptance of transgender people, is common to most of the GOP. So in practice, the main differences the Republican “adults in the room” have with Trump are his rejection of neoliberal orthodoxy on the global political hegemony of the U.S. and the corporate order it enforces, not his godawful social views.
Neera Tanden — head of Center for American Progress, Hillary Clnton ally and Clinton appointee to the Democratic Party’s Platform Committee — in 2013 stated on Twitter in regard to Syria that “while I don’t want to be the world’s policeman, an unpoliced world is dangerous. The US may be the only adult in the room left.”
Clinton herself, most centrists’ beau ideal of an adult in the room, associates herself with figures like Rahm Emanuel, who as head of the Democratic National Campaign Committee denied national party campaign funds in 2006 to candidates who opposed the Iraq war, and as Chicago mayor has run political cover for a police illegal detention site and promoted school charterization on the largest scale seen outside New Orleans. She voted to authorize Bush’s war in Iraq and regurgitated his lies about “weapons of mass destruction,” in order to maintain her future viability as a politican. As Obama’s Secretary of State, she was consistently the strongest voice in favor of military intervention as a tool of policy; she was the most influential voice behind Obama’s reluctant intervention in Libya, and to this day regrets that she did not persuade him to intervene in Syria full-scale. More recently she has not only defended Netanyahu’s crimes against humanity in Gaza, but promised to take America’s relationship with Netanyahu — not just Israel, but Netanyahu — to “the next level.”
Clinton recently devoted an entire speech (after praising her hosts, the American Legion — which started out as a right-wing paramilitary fighting Wobblies in the street) to smarmy self-congratulations that “the United States stands up to dictators” and promises to continue to maintain the world’s largest military to meet all the “threats” out there. This despite the fact that she actively encouraged a right-wing military coup in Honduras, and wears with pride the endorsement of her vacation buddy, war criminal Henry Kissinger, who was instrumental in Pinochet’s overthrow of Allende and the sweep of the entire South American continent by military dictatorships, as well as the invasion and genocide in East Timor.
As for all those “threats,” Clinton and Tanden share the same operating assumptions as Henry Kissinger and the rest of the bipartisan National Security establishment — a set of assumptions summarized by Chomsky’s statement quoted above that “the United States owns the world.” It is for the United States to unilaterally define what size military is sufficient for a given country’s “legitimate defensive needs,” while it defines its own “defensive” needs in terms of the ability to project offensive force anywhere in the world and successfully invade and defeat any other country. It is for the United States to unilaterally define “aggression” anywhere in the world, to define as a “threat” the capability to successfully defend against an American attack, and to define as “defense” encircling any such country, on the other side of the world, with offensive military bases.
The United States is the hegemonic power which upholds a global political, economic and military order established at the end of WWII, which exists to integrate the markets and natural resources of the Global South into the needs of Western corporate capital; and in the parlance of the U.S. National Security elite, any country which attempts to challenge that order by seceding from it is a “threat.”
In the name of upholding this global order against “threats,” the United States since WWII has invaded and/or overthrown the governments of more countries than any other empire in history, backed military coups and death squads, with a death toll of multiple millions.
This is what your “adults in the room” have done. They have constructed a system of power, first domestically and then globally, the main purpose of which is to extract surplus labor from us to feed the rentiers they represent. In enforcing this system of power, they have inflected megadeaths on the world, and have no compunctions against inflicting more. The “adults in the room” are monsters. It’s time to take away their plaything — the American state — which they have used to wreak this destruction and mayhem on the world, and to make sure nobody else ever wields it again.