Capitalism, Sarah Palin-Style

The following was adapted from a speech on May 2, 2009 at The Progressive's
100th anniversary conference and originally printed in The
Progressive magazine, August 2009 issue:

The following was adapted from a speech on May 2, 2009 at The Progressive's
100th anniversary conference and originally printed in The
Progressive magazine, August 2009 issue:

are in a progressive moment, a moment when the ground is shifting
beneath our feet, and anything is possible. What we considered
unimaginable about what could be said and hoped for a year ago is now
possible. At a time like this, it is absolutely critical that we be as
clear as we possibly can be about what it is that we want because we
might just get it.

So the stakes are high.

I usually talk
about the bailout in speeches these days. We all need to understand it
because it is a robbery in progress, the greatest heist in monetary
history. But today I'd like to take a different approach: What if the
bailout actually works, what if the financial sector is saved and the
economy returns to the course it was on before the crisis struck? Is
that what we want? And what would that world look like?

answer is that it would look like Sarah Palin. Hear me out, this is not
a joke. I don't think we have given sufficient consideration to the
meaning of the Palin moment. Think about it: Sarah Palin stepped onto
the world stage as Vice Presidential candidate on August 29 at a McCain
campaign rally, to much fanfare. Exactly two weeks later, on September
14, Lehman Brothers collapsed, triggering the global financial meltdown.

in a way, Palin was the last clear expression of capitalism-as-usual
before everything went south. That's quite helpful because she showed
us-in that plainspoken, down-homey way of hers-the trajectory the U.S.
economy was on before its current meltdown. By offering us this glimpse
of a future, one narrowly avoided, Palin provides us with an
opportunity to ask a core question: Do we want to go there? Do we want
to save that pre-crisis system, get it back to where it was last
September? Or do we want to use this crisis, and the electoral mandate
for serious change delivered by the last election, to radically
transform that system? We need to get clear on our answer now because
we haven't had the potent combination of a serious crisis and a clear
progressive democratic mandate for change since the 1930s. We use this
opportunity, or we lose it.

So what was Sarah Palin telling us
about capitalism-as-usual before she was so rudely interrupted by the
meltdown? Let's first recall that before she came along, the U.S.
public, at long last, was starting to come to grips with the urgency of
the climate crisis, with the fact that our economic activity is at war
with the planet, that radical change is needed immediately. We were
actually having that conversation: Polar bears were on the cover of
Newsweek magazine. And then in walked Sarah Palin. The core of her
message was this: Those environmentalists, those liberals, those
do-gooders are all wrong. You don't have to change anything. You don't
have to rethink anything. Keep driving your gas-guzzling car, keep
going to Wal-Mart and shop all you want. The reason for that is a
magical place called Alaska. Just come up here and take all you want.
"Americans," she said at the Republican National Convention, "we need
to produce more of our own oil and gas. Take it from a gal who knows
the North Slope of Alaska, we've got lots of both."

And the crowd at the convention responded by chanting and chanting: "Drill, baby, drill."

that scene on television, with that weird creepy mixture of sex and oil
and jingoism, I remember thinking: "Wow, the RNC has turned into a
rally in favor of screwing Planet Earth." Literally.

But what
Palin was saying is what is built into the very DNA of capitalism: the
idea that the world has no limits. She was saying that there is no such
thing as consequences, or real-world deficits. Because there will
always be another frontier, another Alaska, another bubble. Just move
on and discover it. Tomorrow will never come.

This is the most
comforting and dangerous lie that there is: the lie that perpetual,
unending growth is possible on our finite planet. And we have to
remember that this message was incredibly popular in those first two
weeks, before Lehman collapsed. Despite Bush's record, Palin and McCain
were pulling ahead. And if it weren't for the financial crisis, and for
the fact that Obama started connecting with working class voters by
putting deregulation and trickle-down economics on trial, they might
have actually won.

The President tells us he wants to look
forward, not backwards. But in order to confront the lie of perpetual
growth and limitless abundance that is at the center of both the
ecological and financial crises, we have to look backwards. And we have
to look way backwards, not just to the past eight years of Bush and
Cheney, but to the very founding of this country, to the whole idea of
the settler state.

Modern capitalism was born with the so-called
discovery of the Americas. It was the pillage of the incredible natural
resources of the Americas that generated the excess capital that made
the Industrial Revolution possible. Early explorers spoke of this land
as a New Jerusalem, a land of such bottomless abundance, there for the
taking, so vast that the pillage would never have to end. This
mythology is in our biblical stories-of floods and fresh starts, of
raptures and rescues-and it is at the center of the American Dream of
constant reinvention. What this myth tells us is that we don't have to
live with our pasts, with the consequences of our actions. We can
always escape, start over.

These stories were always dangerous,
of course, to the people who were already living on the "discovered"
lands, to the people who worked them through forced labor. But now the
planet itself is telling us that we cannot afford these stories of
endless new beginnings anymore. That is why it is so significant that
at the very moment when some kind of human survival instinct kicked in,
and we seemed finally to be coming to grips with the Earth's natural
limits, along came Palin, the new and shiny incarnation of the colonial
frontierswoman, saying: Come on up to Alaska. There is always more.
Don't think, just take.

This is not about Sarah Palin. It's about
the meaning of that myth of constant "discovery," and what it tells us
about the economic system that they're spending trillions of dollars to
save. What it tells us is that capitalism, left to its own devices,
will push us past the point from which the climate can recover. And
capitalism will avoid a serious accounting-whether of its financial
debts or its ecological debts-at all costs. Because there's always
more. A new quick fix. A new frontier.

That message was selling,
as it always does. It was only when the stock market crashed that
people said, "Maybe Sarah Palin isn't a great idea this time around.
Let's go with the smart guy to ride out the crisis."

I almost
feel like we've been given a last chance, some kind of a reprieve. I
try not to be apocalyptic, but the global warming science I read is
scary. This economic crisis, as awful as it is, pulled us back from
that ecological precipice that we were about to drive over with Sarah
Palin and gave us a tiny bit of time and space to change course. And I
think it's significant that when the crisis hit, there was almost a
sense of relief, as if people knew they were living beyond their means
and had gotten caught. We suddenly had permission to do things together
other than shop, and that spoke to something deep.

But we are not
free from the myth. The willful blindness to consequences that Sarah
Palin represents so well is embedded in the way Washington is
responding to the financial crisis. There is just an absolute refusal
to look at how bad it is. Washington would prefer to throw trillions of
dollars into a black hole rather than find out how deep the hole
actually is. That's how willful the desire is not to know.

And we
see lots of other signs of the old logic returning. Wall Street
salaries are almost back to 2007 levels. There's a certain kind of
electricity in the claims that the stock market is rebounding. "Can we
stop feeling guilty yet?" you can practically hear the cable
commentators asking. "Is the bubble back yet?"

And they may well
be right. This crisis isn't going to kill capitalism or even change it
substantively. Without huge popular pressure for structural reform, the
crisis will prove to have been nothing more than a very wrenching
adjustment. The result will be even greater inequality than before the
crisis. Because the millions of people losing their jobs and their
homes aren't all going to be getting them back, not by a long shot. And
manufacturing capacity is very difficult to rebuild once it's auctioned

It's appropriate that we call this a "bailout." Financial
markets are being bailed out to keep the ship of finance capitalism
from sinking, but what is being scooped out is not water. It's people.
It's people who are being thrown overboard in the name of
"stabilization." The result will be a vessel that is leaner and meaner.
Much meaner. Because great inequality-the super rich living side by
side with the economically desperate-requires a hardening of the
hearts. We need to believe ourselves superior to those who are excluded
in order to get through the day. So this is the system that is being
saved: the same old one, only meaner.

And the question that we
face is: Should our job be to bail out this ship, the biggest pirate
ship that ever was, or to sink it and replace it with a sturdier
vessel, one with space for everyone? One that doesn't require these
ritual purges, during which we throw our friends and our neighbors
overboard to save the people in first class. One that understands that
the Earth doesn't have the capacity for all of us to live better and

But it does have the capacity, as Bolivian President Evo Morales said recently at the U.N., "for all of us to live well."

make no mistake: Capitalism will be back. And the same message will
return, though there may be someone new selling that message: You don't
need to change. Keep consuming all you want. There's plenty more.
Drill, baby, drill. Maybe there will be some technological fix that
will make all our problems disappear.

And that is why we need to be absolutely clear right now.

Capitalism can survive this crisis. But the world can't survive another capitalist comeback.

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