All the populism money can buy

by Alexander Cockburn

Across the country last weekend, there were antiwar demonstrations, modest in turnout, but hopefully a warning to Obama that war without end or reason in Afghanistan, plus 40,000 more troops to Kabul, is not why people voted for him.

I spoke at our own little rally in my local town of Eureka, Calif.

My neighbor Ellen Taylor decided to spice up the proceedings by having a guillotine on the platform, right beside the Eureka Courthouse House steps. Her father was Telford Taylor, chief US prosecutor at Nuremberg, When she told me about the plan for the guillotine, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. But Ellen said she wanted to reach out to new constituencies beyond the committed left, and what better siren call than the swoosh of the Avenging Blade? A hundred years ago, people liked to stress the similarities of the American and French revolutions. Mark Twain composed the most eloquent defense of the Terror ever written, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But then, after 1917, the French Revolution was seen as the harbinger of Bolshevik excess and it grew less popular.

Up on the platform I took the guillotine issue head on. Only 666 aristocrats in Paris had been topped versus 1,543 throughout France. The reward: decisive smack on the snout of the landholding aristocracy; durable popular power for peasants, workers and the petit bourgeois: M. le patron and M. le proprietaire stepped into history.

Here in America, the corporate class is now entirely out of control, lawless and beyond the sanction of prosecutor, juror or ballot box. If every corporate lawbreaker felt that somewhere along the line the retribution of the guillotine might await them, it would concentrate their minds marvelously and cow them into lawfulness.

I got some cheers and a charming young hippie, Brooklyn, mother of three, told me she wanted to move to France forthwith.

Ellen told the executioner, Michael Evenson, to put the contraption through its paces. She invited the crowd to call out designated victims — CEOs of the major banks, billionaires of note, and Evenson would drop the blade. He hitched the blade up six feet and down it came with quite a satisfactory thwock.

Three days earlier, Goldman Sachs announced $3.1 billion in third-quarter profits, and set aside $5.3 billion for bonuses. Since G- Sachs is only still in business because of public bailout money, the bonus payments really makes people mad. On the whole, Americans aren’t keen on axe blades, preferring the lynch mob’s rope, but if the target had been the board members of Goldman Sachs, I’m sure they’d make an exception, particularly after Lord Griffiths’ remarks were widely quoted this side of the Atlantic. Griffiths, vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs International, told an audience at St Paul’s Cathedral last Tuesday that the public should “tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity for all. I believe that we should be thinking about the medium-term common good, not the short-term common good…”

Left and liberal commentators have talked yearningly about a new populist fever raging in the American body politic, prompted by the spectacle of bailouts for bankers but foreclosures and the dole for everyone else. I can’t say there’s much sign of populism in any energetic form. Look at movies from the ’30s like Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and there’s a real edge to the anger of that time Capra felt it necessary to convey. These days, the anger is mostly formulaic. Over the weekend the left opinion-makers at the New York Times — Bob Herbert and Frank Rich — chewed out GoldmanSachs. Growled Herbert: “Even as tens of millions of working Americansare struggling to hang onto their jobs and keep a roof over theirfamilies’ heads, the wise guys on Wall Street are licking their fat-catchops over yet another round of obscene multibillion-dollar bonuses —this time thanks to the bailout billions that were sent their way byUncle Sam, with very little in the way of strings attached.”

TheObama administration promptly rushed to cover its left flank byannouncing it’s planning to impose cuts in executive pay at sevencompanies with substantial bailout funds. The US senate’s parlorpopulist, Bernie Sanders, dutifully proclaimed that the Obamaadministration was “taking an important step forward in trying tocontrol the obscene compensation packages of the top executives on WallStreet.”

Note themeek qualifier “trying.” The truth of the matter is that the Obama teamhas managed the tricky shot of giving more bailout money to the banksthan the cumulative dispensations of all previous US governments, whileat the same time not giving any significant debt relief to ruinedhomeowners, a huge slice of whom are poor, black and Hispanic. Obama isnot seeking to reform the financial system, and it would be beyondmiraculous if it did since the contrivers of the present mess —Lawrence Summers, et al — were given a welcoming clap on the back bythe new president as he stepped into the White House and told them toget on with the job. This amazing bailout for the system — as if Leninhad used the October revolution to restore the Romanovs — has beenengineered without significant opposition from organized labor or theleft-liberal end of Obama’s own party.

Ofcourse, people curse the bankers and their political flunkeys as theywatch their 10Ks atomize, their homes go and their jobs disappear toChina. They smolder as they watch the parade of Murdoch’s demagogues onFox, flirting and toying with the theme of Obama’s assassination. TheObama administration dares to war with Glenn Beck, apparently the onlyenemy it feels capable of taking on. The gossip site Gawker calls onits readers to turn in all discreditable information about GoldmanSachs executives. The liberal talk host Olbermann calls on his audienceto rat out Beck. Neither invitation has thus far yielded anysignificant harvest.

Alas,American populism needs the octane of cash. During the Clintonscandals, Hustler supreme Larry Flynt wanted his audience to rat outhighranking Republican sinners. He offered $100,000 cash rewards andthe dirt rolled in. Populism has to be cash-based these days. Maybethat was Ralph Nader’s point. His first work of fiction, 700 pageslong, is titled Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us. Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter Counter- Punch. Copyright 2009 Creators.Com