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What Would Cockburn Say?

Never have I missed the insight and guidance of Alexander Cockburn as much as I do now. What would he make of the big mess in DC this week? When he referenced his ancestor, George Cockburn, who led a raid on Washington during the War of 1812 and burned down the White House, you got the feeling his mission in life was to pull off the literary equivalent by way of well-placed blasts on the battlements of the ruling class and its Washington enforcers. Looking on at the storming of the Capitol last week, perhaps he would have scorned the left for lacking the audacity of the right, even dusting off that old lament from Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Surely the attempt by the US intelligence community to meddle in the Democratic primaries would have elicited a few explosive paragraphs from Cockburn. Instead the issue smoldered until Glenn Greenwald breathed life into it last month. On February 21 the Washington Post reported that Vladimir Putin, according to anonymous intelligence officials, wanted Bernie Sanders to win the nomination because he believed Sanders was the likeliest candidate to lose to Trump in the general election. The claim, possibly concocted from thin air and meaningless even if true, was intended to manipulate people into feeling that if they voted for Sanders they were Russian dupes. At the time, Sanders was sailing to victory while the Biden campaign was floundering, though still maintaining a narrow lead in South Carolina polling. In the week that followed, that one point lead mushroomed to 30 points, and Sanders never recovered his momentum. Greenwald points out that when Michael Bloomberg, right out of the gate, confronted the senator over his alleged Russian backing at the South Carolina debate, Sanders was powerless to forcefully rebut the charge because he himself had contributed to the vilification of Putin, perhaps believing he'd be secure from attack if he jumped onto the xenophobic Russia-bashing bandwagon, never mind that by doing so he was fanning the cold flames of a new round of nuclear brinkmanship. No wonder Cockburn couldn't stand him. 

In contrast to Greenwald, Matt Taibbi dismisses the Post's report as another failed attempt of the power elite to derail the Sanders campaign, though he offers no explanation for the timing of the dramatic reversal of fortune. But the efficacy of the attack is of secondary importance. The point is that it took place at all. The “intelligence community,” presumably the CIA, which has interfered in foreign elections dozens of times, not just circulating propaganda but bankrolling parties and even fomenting coups when the wrong candidate won, crossed the Rubicon by intervening in a domestic election. The projection of “meddling” onto Moscow served to conceal the actual subversion coming out of Washington. That is something Cockburn would not have let slip by without comment.

Since the election of Donald Trump, Cockburn's cowering “pwogwessives” have been unhinged, apoplectic over Hillary Clinton's claim that Russian meddling cost her the 2016 election and sent over the edge by the pandemic. “There's only one reason the USA has been devastated by COVID-19,” says a widely replicated internet meme bearing a picture of The Donald, “and you're looking at it.” Americans, at least on the left, seem to think they've been uniquely targeted by the virus. In reality, the per capita covid death rate in the US is about two-thirds that of Belgium and on a par with the UK, Spain, Italy and France. The hardest hit countries seem to be the most connected ones. The least affected are off the beaten path or places like Vietnam where people seem to have a pre-existent partial immunity perhaps due to previous encounters with similar outbreaks. 

The initial reaction to the virus – compulsive hand washing and household sterilization – is exactly the kind of fear-driven bourgeois behavior Cockburn delighted in skewering. Underprivileged people never have the protection from disease expected by the affluent even in the midst of a pandemic. Given that the American bubble of safety and comfort depends on the exploitation and immiseration of others, what do the excluded think of our terror of the virus? A billion people on this planet face food insecurity on a daily basis, not because the food can't be grown but because poor countries, in order to keep up with endless debt repayments, must export lucrative crops instead of growing staples for domestic consumption. What do those billion hungry people think of the American obsession with security and our sense of entitlement to protection from the threat of a painful and premature death? 

Blaming US death rates on Trump is appealing because it lets the rest of us off the hook. Of course it's all Trump's fault! Why, it couldn't possibly be our selfish and destructive way of life, a.k.a. consumer capitalism, and the imperative to commodify every square inch of the earth and leave nothing for the world's other 50 million species. Should we be surprised when a virus ordinarily confined to the wilds jumps ship before its ecosystem is extinguished in the name of progress? Perhaps the next pandemic will issue forth from a fattening facility where thousands of sickly pigs are concentrated in a stinking squealing hell. Sure, we pump them full of antibiotics, but the pathogens that thrive in these conditions have a way of evolving. 

Meanwhile the USDA funnels billions of dollars to farmers to grow vast quantities of corn and wheat to be bleached and processed into high-carbohydrate junk food, thereby fueling a diabetes epidemic that on its own kills 80,000 Americans a year, a covid-level catastrophe every four years. 

Our real nemesis, aside from our own insatiable hunger for comfort food, is industrial agriculture and, beyond that, the state-capitalist power system that subsidizes it. Not only is Big Ag primarily the result of the capitalist need to turn every economic activity into a source of profit for the already rich, but the concentration of wealth into the hands of the few results in large numbers of impoverished people who can't afford any foods but those that weaken them and leave them vulnerable to diseases like covid. 

Over the years Cockburn wrote extensively on ecology and took on Big Ag and the food industry, even calling for the heads of CEOs profiting from the surge in American obesity. Though he would have granted that Trump did absolutely nothing to rectify any of this, he would have been quick to point out that neither did Obama and neither will Biden. 

Cockburn never forgot that the real enemy is capitalism, that perversion of the free market in which money, instead of merely a means of exchange, becomes a means of accumulating power, including the power to buy politicians. He reminded readers that the ideology of the owning class is liberalism. What conservatives are trying to “conserve” is simply liberalism in its original form. Demonizing the right does no good when the power system can always put on its left-looking face. 

Writing for CounterPunch+, digital successor to Cockburn and St Clair's newsletter, Eric Draitser claims the key factor in the rise of Trump is white supremacy. How does Draitser know this? Well, since rich people and not just unemployed former factory workers in the Upper Midwest support Trump, and the only conceivable commonality between white people of different classes is racism, that explains the outcome of the 2016 election. Four decades of neoliberalism, the slow-mo conversion of the US into a neofeudal paradise to be ruled by a cabal of high-tech monopoly-power corporate overlords in symbiotic embrace with the DNC, takes a backseat in Draitser's analysis. 

Mirroring the rightwing reduction of Black Lives Matter protests to the actions of a few antifa agitators, the left by and large has reduced the DC uprising to a fascist power grab by white supremacists. 

We've certainly seen a recent upsurge in racist behavior across the country, but how much of that is directly attributable to increased economic insecurity brought on by neoliberal austerity? Granted, the claim of protesters that they're fighting communism is bewildering, but the linguistic divide between right and left should not blind us to our common objective of rolling back creeping authoritarianism, a project dear to Cockburn and the basis for his many attempts to reach out to the right. 

What Draitser and many on the left can't seem to comprehend is that conservatives of any socioeconomic standing could be sickened by the hollowing out of the republic and the spreading tentacles of unpayable debt grinding down the American people into a new peasantry. Draitser's racist “Trumpen proletatariat” is simply an updated “basket of deplorables,” Hillary Clinton's attempt to demonize the right to bring the radical rabble in line with the imperatives of neoliberalism. 

Widespread fear, whether of Trump or covid or fascism or “the Russians,” has caused the popular left to lose its nerve and become indistinguishable from the leftwing of the power elite. Newly unified under the banner of abject capitulation, the left acquiesces to Clintonism so long as it means no more scary bad monster in the national living room. Yet in so doing we foreclose, once again, on hope for the fundamental change this world desperately needs. Have we made any gain at all since Cockburn sounded the alarm on what a Bill Clinton presidency would mean for this country? Fast forward 29 years and we're so deep into the neoliberal state-corporate putsch that Republicans are storming the Capitol. That these people think a slimy plutocrat is the only thing standing between them and tyranny only goes to show that it's not just the left that lost its marbles. 

We'll never get the Republican Party to abandon geopolitical maneuvering and low intensity warfare in exchange for global cooperation in the face of ecological crisis. And as long as we keep voting for the designated candidate of the DNCIA, we'll never get it from the Democrats either.

One Comment

  1. lauracooskey January 22, 2021

    Great writing. Thank you.
    I have wondered that myself: WWCS? (What would Cockburn say?) –about the Covid-19 panic.
    And about this creeping and creepy renewed popularity of crowd-enforced, “cloud”-enforced conformity?

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