Fight the Power

“What we got to say
Power to the people no delay
To make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be”
— Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”

In the United States, elections have become little more than the equivalent of Roman bread and circuses.

Voting — which the Emma Goldman character (played by Maureen Stapleton) in the film Reds called the “opiate of the people” — is very much about spectacle. The cable news channels focus on the back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, magnifying differences, playing up candidates’ gaffes and obscuring the reality that only a small bit of light separating the two corporate-controlled parties on the most important issues.

The modern Republican Party, to be sure, has become a collection of dangerous kooks and extremists, but the party’s lack of a coherent vision and the delicate balance struck by the writers of our Constitution are likely to limit the damage.

Not that the Democrats have made major changes. We remain at war in Afghanistan and Iraq (though the latter has a new designation); we still torture and use rendition; the poor and the middle class are still struggling; foreclosures remain a fact of life for too many Americans; it’s still too easy to send jobs overseas; the banks can still gamble with the economy; and we are still abusing our environment.

It is only a matter degree that separates the Bush gang and the current administration; Barack Obama wants to soften the blow of our descent into chaos, rather than stand up to the corporate greed heads. In the end, both parties are beholden to corporations, making decisions based on what the men and women who pay for the campaigns deem important.

Our elections provide us with little power to change this. I do not advocate boycotting future votes (I write this in late-October); there are good people in Congress (Sens. Russ Feingold and Al Franken, US Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Barbara Lee, among them, along with Rush Holt, who represents my district in Congress) and abandoning the vote to crazy right-wingers is downright dangerous.

And yet, casting a vote every four years and leaving the decision-making to the Washington elite only undercuts our power as citizens. Democracy is more than voting: It is participation; it requires citizens to take responsibility and control of our government — to take it back, as the Tea Partiers might say, but not from the various straw men they’ve raised. We need to take it back, as Chris Hedges writes in his new book, The Death of the Liberal Class, from the corporate elite.

That’s what the protests and strikes in France have been about. While the American news media has focused only on a proposed change in the French retirement age — and the unfortunate violence sparked by the collision of protestors and police — the strikes are about more than the two-year change.

As the Washington Post reported, workers are fighting back against a larger European move to address the 2008 financial crisis and ongoing recession with severe cuts in benefits.

“These protests are ‘an attempt to say stop abusing the workers and citizens,’ Christian Coste, head of the CGT Union at Total’s La Mede refinery, told Associated Press Television News on Oct. 16. ‘We are not here to bring France to its knees and create a shortage. We are here to make ourselves heard.’” (Washington Post)

Being heard is a novel idea here, where workers have been silenced by a mix of anti-union legislation and a cultural bias against organizing. Instead, we have a public argument over which workers should be treated worse, with private-sector workers angry over the still-decent benefits earned by public-sector employees.

This creates a race to the bottom that drives our wages down and leaves our benefits — Social Security, our faulty health care system, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage — vulnerable to conservative assault.

American workers are disenfranchised and the American public has been lulled into the false sense that their only responsibility to our democracy is to vote once a year. Too many Americans think that the election of a president will address their problems, their ability to act on their own behalf, to control their own political destiny.

The Tea Party is a reaction to this, even if it is a distorted reaction, an explosion of right-wing populism that has empowered a social backlash. The Tea Party may have risen up as a white anti-Obama movement, but it has gained traction because of the failure of the Democrats and the liberal establishment to address working class concerns.

What we need is a real and vibrant left, one willing to go to the streets, willing to assault the power structure (without violence), willing to challenge the Democrats (as opposed to the obsequious way in which most of the left relates to the party and the president).

Barack Obama is better than George W. Bush, but he is still a corporate Democrat doing the bidding of corporate America and he’ll continue to do so unless we make some real noise.

Hank Kalet is regional editor for in central New Jersey. E-mail,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2010

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