There is nothing new under the Broiling Sun (Ken Burns)

Johnny Sunshine  

Looking on the bright side is not always easy, even for me, though the words of Daniel Berrigan encourage buoyancy; as faith always starts with oneself. It means an overriding sense of responsibility for the universe, making sure that the universe is left in good hands and the belief that things will finally turn out all right if we remain faithful. That said, it`s worth remembering that the natural optimism of the spirit must contend with the equally innate pessimism of the intellect.  Especially, when looking at the political landscape from a left-wing position. In these circumstances, it’s necessary to conclude that the fight has been completely fixed, against the many by the very few.  Such sentiment only amplified when one considers the more articulate commentary emanating from the USA today. Such as Chris Hedges suggesting that the political system has undergone a corporate coup d’état. Resulting in an inverted totalitarianism, not discernible through an individual demagogue but instead expressed via the anonymity of the corporate state.  This shadowy leviathan has made a servant of the contemporary Democratic Party an organization dominated by fake liberals, masquerading as the social democrats of the past, uttering political clichés favouring the poor, while serving the interest of monopoly and capital.   The USA today resembles Pottersville rather than Bedford Falls but a progressive government tradition does exist, which was shaped both by the right as well as the left. 

Sometime ago Ken Burns the brilliant American documentary film maker, gave a fascinating discourse on`The American Dust Bowl` his then current project.  In this overview, Burns highlighted how this man-made ecological catastrophe devastated the region and the lives of thousands. His analysis also covered the response of the Federal government, led by FDR, as 75% of the population remained in the vast dust bowl area during this prolonged ecological disaster. These people were beyond the precepts of rugged individualism, and grateful recipients of a raft of relief programmes.  Roosevelt while motivated to salvage capitalism, happened also to be the antithesis of Herbert Hoover. FDR intervened to such a degree that the political affiliations of the areas affected went from red to blue because as Ken Burns points out, Franklin Roosevelt came in and saved their lives.

Those who left Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Texas and Arkansas were an army of about two million. A 1930s caricature of Manifest Destiny, leading to discrimination and exploitation in California, a significant percentage of the migrants eventually returned home to the Eastern Plains. This mass migration to California indicates the limitation of the proposals put in place by FDR. While large farmers ditched their rhetorical opposition to Federal relief under the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the same legislation did not extend support to the vast bulk of the population i.e. farm labourers or tenant farmers, forcing many to leave. Though it’s worth asking why some came back to the Dust Bowl.  The cure may have been worse than the disease the experience of discrimination by regional government was profound.  Or perhaps there return tells us more about the relief effort and stimulus package introduced by the Federal Government as government subsides began to improve matters.

Despite this improvement a right wing response emerged, as the American Liberty League was formed in 1934, an embryonic neoliberal group.  This organisation was unhappy at the interventionist approach adopted by FDR. The League an ideological precursor to what passes for government today; Hoover was a prominent member of the group and his critique was made while about 17 million people languished on the bread line resulting from policies he championed in his own and previous Republican administrations in the 1920s.  Hoover however was forced to go through a political reappraisal whilst in office.  He moved away from the discredited laissez faire measures and supported the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act through Congress.  He also established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the Home Loan Board both measures became a template for FDR`s New Deal. Hoover and FDR were far less opposite than they initially appear, as the Republicans under Hoover were moving towards intervention, which gave impetus and credibility to FDR`s more dynamic version.

Burns (who is not a polemical film maker) did explain (with reference to a famous Frank Capra movie), that the America he wished to reside in is one bound together by community resembling Bedford Falls rather than its alternative.  However, when we survey the economic landscape of the USA today, it increasingly looks like a nation in which George Bailey, the Capra hero, would not understand.  George Bailey is of course a product of fiction, a fact that becomes all too evident when examining the economic state of the working class in the USA today. Though there is an essence of Bailey`s existence through the New Deal or the parts not yet fully dismantled by subsequent administrations.

Ironically it was a former B-movie thespian Ronald Reagan (a friend of the actor who played George Bailey, Jimmy Stewart) who began dismantling FDR`s New Deal. Reagan waxed lyrical about a `City on a hill` but the golden citadel he saw in his mind’s eye was Pottersville and not that of Bedford Falls and it is this reality that working people in the USA must confront each day.

As Hedges points out the vast wealth which was at the disposal of the United States should have meant the eradication of poverty. But instead of this you have a society


Rapidly reconfigured into a kind of neo-feudal society, an oligarch society where increasingly the bottom two thirds of Americans are hanging on by their fingertips.  You have a shrinking diminishing middle class and an elite that is making obscene amounts of money as our expense and you can`t sustain that.

Hedges analysis of the lacklustre economic response  is indicative of the current dire state of American democracy, when compared to developments highlighted above in the 1930s. Hedges analysis indicates that the reform measures evident in the 1930s and in the later Great Society period are no longer achievable:


And a rational response would be a full moratorium on foreclosures and bank repossessions forgiveness of student debt a massive jobs programme. Rebuilding infrastructure especially targeted people under 25 years of age.  That would be rational but the state does not respond rationally because there are no mechanisms or counter mechanisms now to make piecemeal or incremental reform possible which was the role of the traditional liberal class… You’re seeing unemployment benefits being taken away. You`re seeing Head Start Programs being shut down. You`re seeing an assault on public education…the Congress cannot even cap the student debt at 3% its now risen to 26% while at the same time the Fed is lending trillions of dollars corporations like Goldman Sachs at virtually zero per cent interest and then these financial corporation especially if your late on your credit card are charging us upwards of 30%.

Its estimated that in about twenty years time (or less) the vast undergound water which feeds the Dust Bowl area will run dry.  One can only imagine what the government response will be when this happens, when government has to come to the aid of the many and not just the few.

Dedicated to Liz, happy belated birthday, Love you X

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: