If this column has a doppelganger, it’s that of the NYT’s columnist Bob Herbert. It’s striking how often, on a given Sunday, Mr Herbert and this columnist turn out to have written essentially the same column; or else one predates the other by a few days.

20090315jonWhen this column beats Mr Herbert into print, his can feel like a pleasant confirmation. When, however, Mr Herbert preempts one of these columns with one of his — as he did last Tuesday (‘Reviving the Dream,’ NYT) — this columnist sees little choice apart from switching topics at the last moment (unjustifiably, since our readership is presumably quite different) or using this space to pass on the substance of Mr Herbert’s column.

Thus, in ‘Reviving the Dream,’ Mr Herbert — who has gradually emerged of late as a militant critic of Reaganomics — relates the current crash of the US economy and financial system to 30 years of a weirdly irresponsible — and savagely exploitative — laissez faire philosophy. They were decades, he writes, in which “Working people were not just abandoned by big business and their ideological henchmen in government, they were exploited and humiliated. They were denied the productivity gains that should have rightfully accrued to them. They were treated ruthlessly whenever they tried to organize.”

“America,” Herbert concludes, “used to be better than this.”

Jon Stewart (left) cut Jim Cramer down to size.
Jon Stewart (left) cut Jim Cramer down to size.

Not only America.  There must be many Trinidadians who remember the excitable élan with which, in the second half of the ’80s, the new NAR government headed by ANR Robinson rushed to follow the lead of Reagan/ Thatcher, ebulliently quashing COLA and brusquely breaking the bargaining power of the unions.

And there can be few Caribbean nationals — outside of the then already wealthy, and soon to be fabulously wealthy, executive class, that is — whose memory of the ’80s isn’t of a time when they mysteriously found themselves scrambling to hold their place on what had suddenly become an economic treadmill, working ever harder and longer hours even as they were stripped of the basic human dignity of job security, pension plans, health insurance, paid maternity leave and the like.

And all this happened at the same time that the state was drastically cutting its subsidies of education for their children and health care for their parents.

Herbert summarizes how, and to whose benefit, this brave new world was born:

“The right-wingers were crafty: You smother the dream by crippling the programs that support it, by starving the government of money to pay for them, by funnelling the government’s revenues to the rich through tax cuts and other benefits, by looting the government the way gangsters loot legitimate businesses, and then pleading poverty when it comes time to fund the services required by the people.”

That whole 30-year orgy of looting of the public purse by the wealthy (of which the Iraq war and the ‘War on Terror’ have been giant enablers) is what came crashing down last September as Wall Street, the banks and many American mega-corporations collapsed, and unemployment took off.

Fortuitously, it encountered a new president who understood this. Barack Obama’s fiscal plans are aimed, not merely at averting the worst of the current crisis, but at terminating the feeding frenzy by the few that was Reaganomics in action, and restoring socioeconomic fairness and decency to the workplace.

Of course, as Herbert remarks, “The right-wingers do not want that to happen, which is why they are rooting so hard for President Obama’s initiatives to fail.”

What Herbert couldn’t add by way of example, because news of it hadn’t yet broken, was that late last week Citigroup was revealed to have used some of its bailout money to host a conference call to whip up opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, Obama’s new trade union bill, designed to facilitate the formation of unions, and thus to begin restoring the bargaining power — and the self-respect — of workers.

Citigroup is one of the giant, crashed American financial institutions that have had to come a-begging to the Obama administration for bailouts amounting to hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ money. Yet last week it didn’t hesitate to join with others of its ilk to try to block those same taxpayers from getting a fair deal in the workplace. (Bank of America, another mendicant megabank, hosted a similar call back in October.)

This may well turn out to be a Custer’s Last Stand on the part of the banks and other big financial institutions; or it may not. The American right — which by now is all but indistinguishable from the Establishment — has enormous resources at its disposal, among them a leading television channel, CNBC, which (along with Fox News, of course), has long acted as a mere propaganda voice for big (and failing) Wall Street firms, never mind its increasingly damaging betrayal of investors.

Faced with Obama’s reformist agenda, CNBC talking heads have been unrestrainedly vituperative. Last month, one of its reporters, Rick Santelli, launched into an on-air rant against Obama’s plan to help “losers” (read ‘African-Americans’) with their mortgages — a rant so over the top that those same African-Americans might be forgiven for wondering if Santelli would have dared denounce a white president in such terms.

The host of The Kudlow Report warned his viewers that President Obama was “waging war against capital.”

And stock picker Jim Cramer accused Obama of engineering “the greatest wealth destruction I’ve ever seen by a President,” and advised Americans to “Obama-proof your portfolio,” advice that CNBC has since routinely repeated.

(In response, comedian Jon Stewart aired a devastating series of clips showing Cramer misleadingly encouraging investors to buy this or that stock, mere weeks before the firm in question crashed.)

So, barely into his term, Barack Obama finds himself with what will probably be the defining battle of his tenure on his hands. His trade union bill is crucial to any defence of working people; and his support lies outside of Washington, in the wrath of a ‘silent majority’ only now beginning to understand the forces and gambits that have gnawed the dignity out of their lives these past three decades.

It’s a wrath that, in most any other country, might today be of revolutionary proportions. Obama’s challenge is to channel and deploy it against what’s effectively the whole American power structure, now ranging up against him for what promises to be an epochal struggle.