From machines to multinationals

From machines to multinationals


Administrations engaged in the old-fashioned political corruption of appointing people to government jobs because of donations or connections rather than expertise, accepting illegal campaign contributions, and using the power of office to solicit contributions are machines, like the old machine of Tammany Hall. The history of every big city in America is partly a history of machine politics. Big men in loose party organizations bestowed favors including jobs to do themselves good, bringing in nephews and in-laws, family friends and neighbors, dishing out jobs where the dishing was doable and sometimes inventing positions not previously available or heard of. Almost every ethnic community except people like the Mennonites made every effort to cover its own bases and to extend the umbrella over its own as much as possible, not only the Irish-Americans who went into law enforcement, but also Americans of Italian, Polish, and Jewish descent. Even Tammany had to negotiate with the machine in Harlem.


Machines at work

It would be misperception to gloss over the days of pure ward politics with nostalgia. Almost every new immigrant population did to the next what had been done to it, their tactics often dishonest, the results horrible, and the elections a joke. And those were the elections with livingvoters.

Politics reeked of the insularity, prejudice, and crime as flamboyant as in the famous 1991 Louisiana gubernatorial race between Kluxer David Duke and the repeatedly-indicted Edwin Edwards.

Edwin Edwards

Some Edwards supporters plastered on bumper stickers that read, “Vote for the crook.  It’s important.”


Still, a big difference between the old machines and today’s mammoth maneuvering behind the scenes is that the machines were to some extent playing the politics of inclusion.

Today the smart money is exclusionary. The big money–the biggest in world history–is on keeping people out. This situation has a number of causes, including  consolidation in media outlets that tends to keep the entrenched mediocre and the mediocre entrenched. But the results are unequivocally destructive.

However bad the old machine politics were, they were at least understandable. Their principle, such as it was, was simple: you take care of us; we’ll take care of you. It was understood that each bunch of politicos, jobholders and ‘volunteers’ would try to get what it could and keep what it had, each group scrambling for itself, and neighborhoods, schools and businesses survived under the arrangement. They were fighting over turf, but it was turf developed by the people who worked, prayed, and sent their children to school on it, on which they built grocery stores, ran fire departments, and got law degrees by attending night classes.

What turf are today’s neocons and the actual foreign policy experts fighting over? Whose neighborhood or small town is Clinton or Romney or Giuliani scrambling to protect, or the biggest political contributors, mostly GOP, in the insurance, pharma and tobacco industries? All these parties have a vested interest in globalization, which means latching onto large corporations that cross national lines. Whose community are they working for? Taiwan?

This suggestion is not tossed out at random. Among the worst excesses of the traditional machines was their collusion with gangs and gangsters, and at this writing the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia, the epicenter of yuppiedom, are also a hub of some strikingly aggressive Asian gangs. This topic is not one on which the White House and the First Lady, in her campaign for at-risk male youth, have touched publicly.

The flavor of American politics has changed with the economy, over the past thirty years; fire department, police and post office jobs aren’t handed out the way they used to be; the manufacturing sector and the rest of America’s basic industries – copper, steel, maritime, rails – have declined; and most people are dependent on a white-collar job or a pink-collar job or a no-collar job. And as typical white-collar jobs go, political appointments are fairly plummy; not everyone can get in. But it’s not the government jobs that are political plums, it’s the behind-the-scenes contracting in consulting, producing and handling campaigns, and contracting itself – contractors handle government and other procurement, and handle employment decisions for both public and private entities. Until the Internet opened up campaigns somewhat, campaigning became well-paid turf to be protected from the common gaze, even more than some government positions, and a committed citizen who went to a campaign headquarters to volunteer, full of zeal and enthusiasm, was at least as likely to be shunted off as brought in.

As said, the nature of campaigning has become more inclusive again, partly because of the Net roots. But the politically-influenced sector of the job market, and that is a huge sector, has not become more inclusive. These days, someone who applies for a job writing for the Postal Service, for example, is liable to be vetted by a subcontractor working – not for our government – but for one of the huge military contractors such as Lockheed Martin. And with 68 percent of college faculty teaching in part-time or non-tenure-track positions, virtually any former CIA director or other government official has a better chance of snaffling one of the few ‘good’ academic jobs than virtually any longtime professor.

In other words, it’s not just security-clearance, high-tech, defense-oriented positions that are increasingly controlled or influenced by our expanding military-industrial-surveillance complex, with damage to our foreign policy now abundantly documented. It is our intellectual infrastructure.

No candidate has voiced the damage done to our reading and writing realm in the United States by adverse dominance over what should be a realm of independent thought.


[This article, deleted by the system among hundreds of articles and blog posts in summer 2011, is re-posted using archives and Word files.]

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