Exterminating Angels

Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film The Exterminating Angel is many things to many people. The eye of the bewildered beholder, beholden to his or her personal perspective, conditions the response. The plot is straightforward: a small coterie of wealthy Mexicans convene for a dinner party, only to find that they cannot leave the party — literally. There is no apparent physical impediment. Nothing visual blocks their exodus. Rather it is a kind of psychic inanition that collapses their will to leave. As each guest variously attempts to cross the threshold, a thought pops into his or her head rationalizing a reason to stay. A coffee, breakfast, an argument, a love tryst. It makes no difference. No one leaves. These haut monde citizens are quite conscious of their predicament, but consciousness of the problem is no solution. It is an ingenious plot; sinfully simple, bafflingly motiveless.

Some say the film variously mocks the cinema experience itself, others that it slyly savages religion. Still others say it means nothing, in good surrealist fashion. But perhaps the Marxist lens is especially apposite. The cast are drawn from mid-Fifties Mexican melodramas, having built their careers dramatizing the efete dilemmas of bourgeois life. What today we call first-world problems. They convincingly portray a cast of elites who cannot fix the simplest of problems. In this sense, the movie prefigures our own bourgeoisie, and the professional class cum liberal intelligentsia more broadly. The same sterility of action haunts our liberal corridors. Problems of human health, for which we abound with solutions, cannot be solved. Needless bloodshed, for which we burn blood and treasure, cannot be meaningfully addressed. Rampaging institutional racism and chronic fascism, at home and abroad, are never countenanced but with the thinnest bromides. Buñuel’s gentility cannot exit their dinner party; our liberal class cannot exit neoliberalism.

The liberal class is beholden to lesser evil voting, a reductionist ethic that refuses to consider the long-term consequences of employing it. They turn a blind eye to the rightward drift of a bipartisan political class with no leftward pressure, an actuality created by strident party allegiance.

Stopping Short

Part of the reason liberalism is weak is because it cannot follow the path of its sentiments to their obvious conclusion. It stops short of the logical endpoint of its rhetorical nods to solidarity–which is socialism.

Unwilling to exit the duopoly, incapable of system-level critique, fearful of revolution, liberals narrow their animus to their alter-ego in the duopoly. What is wrong is the fault of Republicans, who stonewall well-intentioned Democrats at every turn. In this sense, problems are off-ramped into diversionary side shows, like the present impeachment hysteria. As the carnival roars ahead, Democrats sign on to vast war budgets, the militarization of space, and the swift rubber-stamping of a raft of Trump judicial nominees. These gross capitulations are elbowed out of view with piecemeal reform, which indicates the true goal of modern liberals: effecting meaningful change without changing their lives in any meaningful way.

This perpetual off-ramping ensures the problem is never seen as systemic. A system critique would, in the end, identify the liberal class itself as a mechanism of the status quo, a release valve for endemic popular frustration rather than a tool of revolutionary transformation. Like Exterminating Angels, liberals (neoliberals in practice) work to exterminate the threat of truly progressive, government-led reform; i.e., socialist policy.

No Stopping Power

This is why liberals are weak against capitalist fascism. They cannot claim a valid ideology to fight it with. Tempering neoliberalism is all they’ve got. Socialism is the ideology that can and has worked but liberals have been convinced that communism leads to mass murder. Hence they are left to weakly decry the excesses of capitalism and limply argue for modest reforms.

There’s little doubt about the benefits that socialist command economies deliver to their populations. The metrics are clear, from the economic figures from the Soviet Union to the decades of stunning growth in China since the Chinese Communist Revolution, the remarkable turnarounds led by Evo Morales in Bolivia and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, not to mention Lula Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil. But all of these achievements have been either scrubbed from modern history or attributed to capitalism through widespread, multi-decade disinformation campaigns.

Liberals, indeed all of us, tend to overlook the evidence of socialist uplift in our own country (aside from the New Deal). As Michael Parenti has astutely noted, how many private industries owe their existence to government-funded research and development? From public transportation infrastructure to satellite communications, the Internet, nuclear power, and aeronautics, the role of federal funding is immense. Then there’s the state university system, another widely effective project of social uplift the federal role of which is widely ignored. In an Orwellian sense, the non plus ultra of socialist success is the defense industry, a system that consumes half of federal discretionary spending to fuel the Pentagon system and the weapons farms that supply it.

This is partly why Bernie Sanders will likely lose in 2020. (Aside from the institutional barriers, erected partly by liberals themselves, and relentlessly negative corporate media coverage.) Sanders has rallied considerable support for New Deal liberalism but has stopped there. He never mentions the socio-economic achievements of the USSR and China because he has made a political calculation that embracing such examples outside the spectrum of acceptable thought would be political suicide. Yet not going all the way will guarantee the ultimate failure of his project. Only embracing a dictatorship of workers would generate enough support for a revolution regardless of capitalist class schemes to undermine his campaign. Not only would his policies never be enacted short of mass socialist revolt, he never speaks of the inevitable rollback that is the immediate consequence of progressive policy in a capitalist society. In this respect, Sanders represents the limitations of liberalism and demonstrates why it is incapable of challenging capitalist imperialism. At best it can achieve limited reforms subject to swift repeal by the fascist right.

Forgotten Legacies

If the liberal camp has forsaken the historic success of various socialist projects, it has likewise glossed over the failures of its own tepid reformism. For liberals already sliding into the Warren camp, a predictable outcome given their historical behavior, here is what we got with our last so-called liberal president. We should note that some 200 former Obama employees are now stumping for Warren, who represents the same milquetoast “centrism” as our erstwhile leader. As author Chris Hedges has repeatedly noted, Obama should be remembered for his:

  • Refusal to prosecute any members of the Bush administration for their war crimes. It is the simplest of adages: if crime isn’t punished, then crime pays. (Note how war crimes are not impeachment-worthy, but a little foreign aid quid pro quo is if might score political points.)
  • The assault on civil liberties was worse under Obama than Bush (including an unprecedented assault on whistleblowers and due process related to ‘enemy combatants’ and detained American citizens).
  • The dramatic expansion of drone warfare was executed under Obama (at the behest of fanatical consigliere John Brennan).
  • The 2002 AUMF was reinterpreted by the Obama Department of Justice to sanction the killing of American citizens.
  • The deliberate use of al-Qaeda and related franchises to destabilize Syria with a proxy war (leading to some 500,000 dead and 13 million displaced, 5 million exiled from the country.)
  • The deliberate use of a no-fly zone to conduct a brutal regime change in Libya (where NATO acted as al-Qaeda’s de facto air force.)
  • Obama’s recovery delivered 95 percent of the economic rebound into the calf-skinned wallets of obscene wealth.
  • A decade after the 2008 meltdown, the average net worth of the average middle class family was $40,000 lower than it had been before the crash. The net worth of black families is down 40 percent and Latino households down 46 percent. Nobody expects recovery.
  • The lavish multi-trillion dollar bailout of corrupt Wall Street banks, which caused the 2007-2008 financial crisis (all while handing crumbs to homeowners defaulting in record numbers).
  • The enactment of the Affordable Care Act, an Orwellian health insurance scheme invented by Republicans, written by the insurance lobby, and forcibly imposed on the American public, leading to a dramatic inflation of healthcare costs, ongoing individual bankruptcies due to medical debt, reimbursement shortfalls, and the utterly cynical separation of ‘healthcare access’ from ‘healthcare’ itself. While providing some appreciable relief at the bottom end of the consumer pyramid, it was, in retrospect, a means of forestalling Medicare for All and of unburdening businesses of their role looking after the health of their employees.
  • The open declaration that Venezuela was a national security threat, entraining lethal sanctions that have only been ratcheted up by the Trump administration (quite predictably). Some 40,000 have died as a result.
  • The facilitation and support of regime change in Ukraine, generating border tensions with Russia, a civil war inside Ukraine, and a new Cold War internationally. The Obama administration’s uptick in hostility toward Russia created the ideological context in which Russiagate was sure to flourish.
  • It was Obama’s NDAA that allowed troops to conduct missions on American soil.
  • It was Obama’s NDAA that legalized domestic propaganda.
  • It was the CIA under Obama that illegally spied on Congress.
  • It was the FBI and CIA under Obama that ginned up the false pretexts to spy on a presidential campaign.
  • The falsification of the need to spy on the Trump presidential campaign led directly to the chimerical Russiagate scandal that has rocked the presidency and critically helped the military-intelligence-industrial complex constrain Trump’s foreign policy instincts (on which he campaigned).
  • It was the Obama administration that delivered a record-setting military aid package to the apartheid state of Israel (including refusal to sanction Israel for its brutal attack on Palestinian people in 2014).

All these realities must be brushed aside so as not to obscure our view of the incremental prosperity that Democrats claim to deliver. But even this promise, that the Democrats will deliver progress in the long run, is false. Both parties preside over decline, not progress. It is the nature of decline that is at stake each quadrennial: death by a thousand cuts or a bullet to the body politic. Simply look at the barometers of prosperity since the implementation of neoliberalism in the early 1970s. During the Long Boom from the post-war era to the early Seventies, productivity was hitched to wages, thanks to labor unions and other forms of class struggle. Since 1973, when neoliberal economics were being implemented with increasing fervor, American productivity has gone up 77 percent, wages by 12 percent. This gap accounts in part for the increasing percentage of the nation’s wealth hoarded by elites.

End Game

The liberal class practices a kind of deliberate cognitive dissonance despite having informed opinion at their fingertips. They do not connect the Democrats to human destruction, though Obama generated untold suffering across eight wars. They do not connect sanctions to economic destruction, though Obama declared Venezuela a national security threat and implemented sanctions that, ratcheted up by the Trump regime, have turned a once robust Venezuelan economy into a derelict engine of instability. They do not connect NGOs to civic destruction, though Democratic use of NGO front organizations in Venezuela and Ukraine and Libya have produced everything from commodity hoarding to street violence and slave labor. They do not connect corporate media to reputation destruction, though they literally watched Bernie Sanders destroyed by lies and negligence from the media proxies of the very party he embraced. They connect none of these events to a bipartisan neoliberal capitalism, the unhinged engine of supra-national exploitation that is the core cause of declining life prospects inside the empire, and extinguished life prospects outside it.

So we are left with an effete professional class of lip-sync liberals who repeat the platitudes of friendly fascism before retiring back to their bunkers of creature comforts. When asked if there was a difference between the Democratic and Republican parties, Hedges replied, “Of course there’s a difference: it is how you want corporate fascism delivered to you. Do you want it delivered by a Princeton-educated, Goldman Sachs criminal, or do you want it delivered by a racist, nativist, Christian fascist?…The fundamental engines of oligarchic global corporate power are advanced by both parties. One tries to present it in a multicultural, inclusive way, the other is embraced by troglodytes….Believing the Democratic Party will save us is a kind of willful blindness.” Like Buñuel’s surrealist depiction, it is the liberal class, echoing the rhetoric of hope and solidarity, that truly exterminate the possibility of either.

Jason Hirthler is a writer, political commentator, and veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He is the recent author of Imperial Fictions, a collection of essays from between 2015-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jason.
            <p class="postmeta">This article was posted on Tuesday, December 31st, 2019 at 1:57am and is filed under <a href="https://dissidentvoice.org/category/obama/" rel="category tag">Barack Obama</a>, <a href="https://dissidentvoice.org/category/bernie-sanders/" rel="category tag">Bernie Sanders</a>, <a href="https://dissidentvoice.org/category/capitalism/" rel="category tag">Capitalism</a>, <a href="https://dissidentvoice.org/category/donald-trump/" rel="category tag">Donald Trump</a>, <a href="https://dissidentvoice.org/category/fascism/" rel="category tag">Fascism</a>, <a href="https://dissidentvoice.org/category/liberalism/" rel="category tag">Liberalism</a>, <a href="https://dissidentvoice.org/category/neoliberalism/" rel="category tag">Neoliberalism</a>, <a href="https://dissidentvoice.org/category/united-states/" rel="category tag">United States</a>, <a href="https://dissidentvoice.org/category/war/" rel="category tag">War</a>. 
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