The U.S. is Becoming a ‘Failed State’ The Black Commentator
Issue 131 – March 24, 2005
Too often lately in Black America, political discourse has become so parochial – so steeped in petty assessments of marginal advantages that might accrue to some portion of “The Race” through tactical slickness or posturing – that it sounds like a discussion of what to wear to the beach when the tsunami hits. The very fact that the question of Black alignment with Republicans is entertained under any circumstances at this historical juncture, is proof that much of the Black leadership class has lost its moorings. While African Americans are diverted by actuarial tables (falsely) purporting to show the merits of privatized Social Security, the Pirates at the helm of the GOP relentlessly pursue their larger agenda: to destroy every structure of government that has usefulness to the public – especially, Black people – in order to clear the way for corporate governance.
If this process is allowed to advance much further, the sea will have truly changed, smashing every mechanism for Black progress and redress of historical grievance, swamping every ancestor-cleared pathway to effective exercise of our collective political will, and rendering our vaunted solidarity a disconnected impulse with no means of expression.
Of what use is a congressional or state Black political caucus, or Black mayors and city councils, if the state is so enfeebled that it cannot deliver the goods? That’s precisely the strategic objective of those who would “Starve the Beast” – poison the fiscal well with deficits and tax cuts until the federal government cannot deliver popularly desired political goods such as health care, much less help the states and cities provide basic services. Corporations then step into the void – or as much of the needs-market as is profitable – to sell vital services. Elected officials are made superfluous. Black power – or the dream of it – becomes a dead letter.
Social Security – a public prize too fabulously rich to destroy, outright – is to be milked dry by Wall Street under one or another of the privatizing proposals floating around Republican and Democratic Leadership Council circles. “All these proposals have one thing in common,” writes Henry C.K. Liu, Asia Times contributor and chairman of the New York-based Liu Investment Group, in his series, “World Order, Failed States and Terrorism.” “They all try to change Social Security into social risk. The only party to benefit will be the financial-services industry that provides the investment advice and trades.”
Once entrenched in the system, it will be near-impossible to disentanglement corporations from Social Security without trillions of dollars in indemnification by the federal treasury against corporate “losses.” This is part of what “social risk” – as opposed to private, corporate risk – is all about, and how the public sphere is swallowed whole and irrevocably. Don’t write your congressperson, after-the-fact. She won’t be able to do a damn thing about it.
No goods to deliver
We are witnessing the domestic version of a phenomenon well known in the Third World: the deliberate creation of “failed states,” national governments that have been maneuvered or coerced into impotence by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, trade agreements with the United States – any combination of capital and military coercion. These states have become irrelevant to the needs of their own people and, therefore, in a very real sense, illegitimate. As Henry C..K. Liu explains, such states cannot deliver the goods:
“Failed states provide only substandard political goods, if any at all. Weak failed states involuntarily forfeit, and strong failed states do so voluntarily, the responsibility for delivering political goods, and leave it to non-state actors, i.e. the private sector through the market mechanism. Privatization of the public sector is more than the outsourcing of state functions. It is the selling off of state prerogatives.”
The Bush regime has summoned the failed state chicken home to roost, with a vengeance, as it attempts to strip away every social obligation of the state to the people. However, the legitimacy of American governments at all levels has long been eroding, as defined by their capacity to provide political goods to the citizenry. For decades, heavily Black cities have busily sold off their “prerogatives” – their assets, tax bases and sovereign powers – to corporations or regional authorities. (See the five-part series, “A Plan for the Cities to Save Themselves,” beginning August 14, 2003.) Forty years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, the act of voting becomes ever more irrelevant to people’s everyday lives.
Even the coercive organs of the state – prisons, policing, the military – pass rapidly into private hands – evidence of advanced state failure. And no one should doubt that the American Gulag, comprising one quarter of the world’s prison inmates, half of them Black, is prima facie proof of massive state failure – a government that delivers incarceration, rather than liberty, to a huge portion of its citizens.
“Another political good,” writes Liu, “is the provision of universal health care and education, the maintenance of a vibrant economy of full employment at living wages that will allow workers to afford decent housing and secure retirement, and a clean environment, without which all rhetoric about liberty becomes irrelevant.” These are, in fact, fundamental attributes and aspirations of civilization as it has evolved in modern times. Add a heavy emphasis on justice and the right to self-determination, and one arrives at a general description of the historical Black Political Agenda, now under massive assault by the Bush regime.
The Black Agenda has always required state (federal) intervention to redress the harms inflicted on African Americans by both public and private tormentors. It is through the public sphere – our ceaseless struggle to forge a more just society – that African Americans have developed a unique world view and political consensus. Ours was the vision that brought two revolutions in the national life – post-Civil War Reconstruction and the reluctant 1960s leap into modern civilization. Arrayed against us, were the forces of private power: first, the private power of the slave master, which almost caused the United States to fail, then white supremacist “states’ rights,” which severed African Americans from the protections of the federal government and Constitution, exposing southern Blacks to every exploitive and terrorist whim of any white man.
Projects of Black “self-help” were inevitably circumscribed – penned in and shrunken – in the absence of state enforced norms of justice and equality. When the state is caused to fail we are left naked to the Beast. American history teaches us that.
African Americans have always strived for “a more perfect union” – a national state that achieves legitimacy by exercising its “prerogatives” and powers in service of the populace. Our gift to the southern states was enormous. “For both races, Reconstruction laid the foundation for public schooling in the South,” says the Digital History site. “Before the Civil War, only North Carolina among Southern states had established a comprehensive system of education for white children. During Reconstruction, public education came to the South.”
Today, corrupt and mercenary Black voucher advocates assist in the final failure of public education, an indispensable pillar of state legitimacy. Their guru is rightwing economist Milton Friedman, who plots a different kind of Reconstruction. “Such a reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system – i.e., by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools.”
Friedman’s (and Bush’s) “failed state” intentions are clear: “Vouchers are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system,” he wrote in 1995, the period when corporate money made the strategic decision to intervene massively in internal Black politics. The current GOP offensive among African Americans – attacking public education with vouchers, bribing preachers with faith-based funding, and undermining Social Security with the specter of prematurely dead Black men – is a product of that historical moment. Republicans seek Black recruits in their project to “fail” the American state.
BET founder Bob Johnson, the first African American billionaire, is an eager propagandist for his class interest, which is totally inimical to the historical Black Political Agenda. After all, what’s a billionaire need a state for, other than to lock up those who might try to rob him? “I take my money, I take my chances,” Johnson told a Capitol Hill hearing on Social Security, urging other Blacks to do the same by endorsing privatized Social Security accounts. “If I hit big over a 30-year period…it’s my money, I get to deal with it… My advocacy is, let there be risk, let there be a reward opportunity.”
Why is the billionaire even in this conversation? What stake does he have in maintaining the bare minimums of a national social contract among citizens, now that he has negotiated his own contract with his corporate fellows – “my money.”
Bob Johnson will be on high ground when the tsunami bears down on us. We don’t have time to waste. The American state is failing.