A Triumph for Conventional Wisdom: Healthcare Reform over Substantive Revolution

“In some measure the articulation of the conventional wisdom is a religious rite. It is an act of affirmation like reading aloud from the Scriptures or going to church. The business executive listening to a luncheon address on the virtues of free enterprise and the evils of Washington is already persuaded, & so are his fellow listeners, & all are secure in their convictions. Indeed, although a display of rapt attention is required, the executive may not feel it necessary to listen. But he does placate the gods by participating in the ritual.”                                                                           

–John K. Galbraith / The Affluent Society

This past Tuesday President Obama signed into law the long awaited healthcare reform bill, expanding insurance covergae to millions of uninsured Americans and ushering in a “new” phase in American capitalism. I use the word “new” sparingly because the provisions included in the bill have failed to introduce any fundamental changes in the way our healthcare system functions. Namely, the fact that our system operates solely on the basis that a select group of individuals profit from the illness of others. This inability, the inability of the bill to bring about a structural transformation in the way healthcare is provided is the exact same reason why Democrats are praising the bill as a historic victory for the American people. The bill’s weakness as a document which can inspire a revolutionary change in the way our nation operates is the reason why President Obama hailed the bill as a “stone firmly laid in the foundation of the American dream”. When one becomes cognizant of this dichotomy between mere reform and substantive revolution it is nearly impossible not to  be overwhelmed with a deep feeling of disappointment. This disappointment arises from the fact that this new bill has scrapped all of the provisions which would have made it piece of legislation to drastically alter the shape of our society. In particular, this new bill abandoned the public option which would have eliminated the difficulties that so many Americans have encountered dealing with insurance companies. Moreover, the bill has eliminated a provision which would have used federal dollars to fund abortions (a decision which reflects a anti-woman stance more than a pro-life one).

Like all reforms, this recent healthcare reform bill is nothing more than a transfer of costs. Unlike the New Deal legislation, which served as a democratizing force by strengthening the influence of the public sphere this new legislation has significantly weakened the influence of the public sphere by literally forcing millions of Americans to participate in the private sector by purchasing health insurance. While this bill assures buyers that they will no longer be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions one must realize that the profits accumulated from the unjust practices of yesterday’s insurance companies will be transferred to the pockets of today’s insurance companies in the form raised premiums. And unlike the buyers of the past these new buyers cannot simply pay their debt, cancel their membership, and retreat from the private sector. To the contrary, upon payment of their debt they would either have to change plans or endure the misery of a financial hardship, a misery which would follow them for the remainder of their days. The fault of the recent healthcare reform legislation is that it has the potential to reduce the majority of our nation’s citizens to a condition of debt peonage, an endless chain of poverty only to be broken by well-informed acts of resistance.

This manner of resistance is reflected in hearts and minds of those individuals clambering at the margins of society. This manner of resistance can be realized in individuals like Florida’s Democratic Congressman, Alan Grayson. Representative Grayson addressed the House with a three page document which proposed that millions of Americans, instead of being forced to buy an insurance plan, should be allowed to buy their way into the federally funded healthcare programs such as the Medicare program. Although this type of legislation falls short of the initial goal to provide a single-payer healthcare system to all, it represents a fundamental change in the direction of the American healthcare system. Grayson’s proposal does not veil the superficialities of governmental reform with the facade of substance. Rather he subverts these systems of power which deploy these mechanisms of control and imbues them with the critical dimension necessary to give rise to actual substance. Individuals of this cloth are needed in order reap the transformative results envisioned during the infancy of the Obama administration, results that have slowly began to wither beneath the national myth of bipartisanship.

For careful examination reveals the fact that the Democratic and Republican parties are no more than two sides of one coin. The Democrats follow the philosophy that the government should run the country at the behest of corporations while the Republicans believe corporations should run the country unilaterally, unfettered by the regulatory mechanisms of the government. The Democratic party is the party of reform which essentially means transferring costs from the rich to the poor. And the GOP is the party of the reactionaries which devotes all of its energy toward maintaining this structure of power. In the words of famed linguist and dissident Noam Chomsky, the ethos of the state which is run by corporation is to “socialize costs and privitize profits”. (Unless of course the corporation happens to implode then it’s perfectly okay to socialize profit, given this profit is concentrated into the hands of wallstreet executives and not mainstreet workers). Much like Galbraith’s description of the corporate culture our political culture is united by a conventional wisdom that holds the idea that it is the object of our goverment to “protect the minority of the opulent from the majority”. Simply put, the rich stay rich and the poor get poorer.

Together, the monolithic character of our political system, the incommensurable greed of the private sphere, and the complicity of our public relations industry has cast the revolutionary consciousness of our nation into the depths of obscurity. Nonetheless, we mustn’t accept this burial of revolutionary consciousness with resignation and discouragement. Instead we should take notice of the failures of those who rest at the helm of our democracy and use this critical spirit to unearth the seeds of true democracy. A genuine democracy that does not praise freedom and justice in the abstract but cherishes them as concrete phenomena worthy of our defense. We must come to the realization that we can only inherit the fruit of our toils once we are willing to accept that all significant forms of resistance are accompanied by equally significant sacrifices. In the words the Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy, we must adopt the philosophy of “resistance with consequences” for if we fail in this endeavor all acts committed hitherto carry no significance at all. Indeed, until we adopt this attitude toward the powers that be everything that we do, in the world at large, will be inconsequential.


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