As politically pure as a bystander’s clean hands

The surest way to lose at politics is to refuse to participate in it because you’re above it all. Refusing to sully yourself with the ugly business of compromise and get-what-you-can incremental change doesn’t mean you’ll have pure, clean hands when the revolution comes. It means the other guy wins, big time, because nobody is playing against him.

Yes, Wall Street has unfathomable amounts of money, power and influence. But that’s only part of the reason they usually get what they want, and maybe not even the biggest reason. The biggest reason may be bystanderism masquerading as revolutionary purity and cynicism masquerading as idealism. Stuff like this:

I expect Obama to do whatever he is told to do by Wall Street. … He has turned over management of the economy to his campaign contributors from Goldman Sachs and Chase Manhattan. He does not have views of his own, other than self-promotion. He wants his presidential library. He wants to have a big foundation like the Clintons.

Never mind who said that, because the point here it that it is, demonstrably, all my balls. It is mendacious, masturbatory nonsense. That paragraph was written, and quoted adoringly, during the same week that Republican members of Congress were attaching amendments to everything in sight attempting to overturn the fiduciary rule. What’s that? Well, if that quote makes you feel all warm and tingly, then you probably are too virtuous to care, but the fiduciary rule says that financial advisors have to look after the best interests of their clients, not their firms. Basically it means they’re not allowed to rip people off, then charge them for the service, by steering them toward retirement savings plans that benefit the analysts more than the clients.

The salient point here is that Wall Street hates the fiduciary rule and they’re fighting, hard, to overturn it, just as they’re still fighting hard to overturn the new overtime rules — another Obama initiative that stands to benefit millions of people even though it is precisely the opposite of what “Wall Street” or “Goldman Sachs and Chase Manhattan” want and even though the banksters are using all of their political clout to fight against these things.

Both of these are clear and important examples of Obama vs. “Wall Street.” They’re also examples of Obama vs. Wall Street + Congress. For now, Obama seems to be winning those contests, but the outcome remains uncertain due, in part, to his lack of public support from the sort of people who prefer to indulge in feeling all warm and tingly by saying things like “I expect Obama to do whatever he is told to do by Wall Street” and the sort of people who refuse to taint their holiness with the ugly business of politics as they sit out the midterms and await the great leap forward.

It’s quite likely that, like me, you won’t be directly affected by the fiduciary rule. Retirement savings? Investments? You might as well be talking about Narnian castles as far as I’m concerned. So the battle in this specific moment doesn’t affect me directly in the way that some of the other Obama vs. Wall Street battles have — like the long fight to create and fortify the CFPB. One of the things that agency has been doing is beating back at the “overdraft protection” racket, which annually transfers more than $30 billion out of the accounts of people living paycheck-to-paycheck and into the pockets of the banksters.

To a clean-handed purist bystander, I suppose, that’s just nibbling around the edges or rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. To me, that’s a series of $35 fees hitting at precisely those moments when I haven’t got $35. And to tens of millions of others like me, that’s $30 billion a year that we’d kind of like to keep. Fighting against the reverse-Robin-Hood overdraft wealth transfer may not be a magic bullet solution that will usher in economic utopia, but it’s a Good Thing and a necessary thing. Of course it’s not the only fight, but dismiss it as a meaningless sideshow and it becomes a fight we lose by forfeit.

I still don’t know what “neoliberalism” means any more than the people who keep saying that word do. But to the extent that “neoliberal” means anything, this is why the neoliberals will always win against their critics. Because those “neoliberals” are out on the playing field, running up the score, while their critics sit on the sidelines, refusing to get their uniforms dirty with anything as impure as politics.

Politics ain’t beanbag, but it ain’t Tic-Tac-Toe, either, Professor Falken. Not to play is not a winning move. Refusing to play just guarantees you’ll always lose.

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