Scandal as Power Struggle
in the U.S. Ruling Class:
The Starr Report
Revolutionary Worker #974, September 20, 1998
When Lenin said that the people would always be deceived until they learned to respond to all major social questions and world events from a class-conscious proletarian viewpoint and no other--I don't know if he had anything in mind quite like the current crisis in the U.S. ruling class. Several weeks ago, we posed the question of why the power structure of the most powerful country in the world would consider impeaching their main man if Bill told Monica to give the gifts back to Betty. The publication of the Starr Report and the White House Rebuttal now seem to have the future of the U.S. imperialist Presidency hanging on the fine distinction between sexual relations and... sexual relations.
Staring at my computer screen--charged with making a class analysis of the current moment for RW readers--I scooped up the vast quantities of news analysis on the floor around my desk, put them under my feet, and reached for a volume of Mao's poems: "On this tiny globe/ A few flies dash themselves against the wall./Humming without cease,/ Sometimes shrilling,/ Sometimes moaning....So many deeds cry out to be done,/ And always urgently;/ The world rolls on,/ Time presses...Seize the day, seize the hour....Away with all pests!"
And with that refreshing reminder I turned to the task at hand.
The empire has come to this: Reactionaries like the Christian Coalition get to clog the airwaves with charges of immorality while they jack off over details in the Starr Report. And for Bill Clinton, chickens are coming home to roost--he is now feeling the impact of measures passed while he was in office to strengthen the powers of prosecutors to entrap and intimidate defendants. The U.S. Congress is preparing to impeach their president. We are in the midst of the fiercest struggle in the U.S. ruling class since Richard Nixon went down over Watergate. And we need to know what is in the wind and where we stand.
First the atmosphere. I'm having a hard time remembering when reactionary morality was getting so much play. We are somewhere between the The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne's tale of Puritan persecution of a young woman who has an affair with the leader of the community, and the Spanish Inquisition, where staying in power meant confessing one's sins before the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada and his church staff. But all this is now packaged with a 1990s information age spin: sex is a weapon and the internet rules.
In short, sisters and brothers, the Christian fascists and rightwing reactionaries who spearheaded this attack against Clinton have gained a lot of steam and prestige in the process. There are many signs of how far the "center" of U.S. politics has moved to the right. A social and moral agenda--which at one time was thought to be the ideology of far-right extremists--is being brought forward as ammunition to impeach a President.
The now famous "friendly fire" from Clinton mentor Senator Lieberman made clear that imposing traditional family values and killing the '60s culture once and for all is serious business for the U.S. power structure. This was echoed in a defense of the Grand Inquisitor Ken Starr in a Wall Street Journal editorial: "We would go so far as to suggest that the 'something' about Ken Starr that so rubbed many opinion-makers the wrong way was the clear understanding that he was not just prosecuting Bill Clinton; he was prosecuting the entire culture that gave birth to what Bill Clinton represents."
People who went through the '60s know what it meant to challenge the traditional values of the 1950s. It meant standing up and saying that we would not allow our sisters to die in back alleys; that women had the right to decide whether to have kids or not, that women were not the property of their husbands, fathers, boyfriends, preachers, or politicians. For us, women's liberation was at the heart of the sexual revolution.
Every revolution has its free love movement--as people fight to break the chains, to redefine the relations between men and women, and to define what it means to have equality. And, since we didn't go all the way to revolutionary power, the sexual revolution of the 1960s inevitably led to new forms of male chauvinism. But a certain verdict was reached and embraced by the masses of people broadly in society. When a man runs around on his partner, when he disrespects women in sexual relations, enlightened people consider these to be transgressions against other human beings on different levels.
Enlightened people think that the kind of behavior Bill Clinton has demonstrated--over and over again--is mistreatment of women, individually and collectively. He humiliated Hillary and used Monica Lewinsky in a callous and selfish way. For revolutionaries all that has social significance because it reflects the property relations in society where men have power over women. And more broadly, as a result of the '60s, the majority of people in this country are opposed to making sex between consenting adults a matter for legal prosecution. This is why they think there is something "unseemly" about the investigation of Ken Starr. The sex police have arrived.
For conservative bourgeois religious moralists and Christian fascists, Clinton's behavior is viewed as a sin against God and a violation of rigid social and sexual roles laid out in the Bible--which are based on male domination. And the Christian fascists demand that women and children owe "promise keeper" obedience to their husbands. For powerful forces in the U.S. bourgeoisie, reinforcing these male dominant roles is seen as key to imposing social order through the family, the church--and the forces of the state.
Following the release of the Starr Report, the media and politicians went on and on about how publishing intimate details will forever diminish the public perception of the President. This whole conversation is so full of Puritanical notions about how sex is evil that I am tempted to write my next essay on feudal morality in the United States at the end of the 20th century. On the other hand, Clinton's defense betrays a calculated view of sexuality--with a built in "political deniability" that is grotesque and insulting.
And everyone knows all the bourgeois moralizing going on is the most hypocritical nonsense. Talk of defaming the hallowed halls of the White House with sex is laughable--as the whole history of the U.S. power structure shows. Even more so when the great critics of lying under oath are the very people who supported the likes of Oliver North and the entire Reagan administration which lied to Congress and broke the law in the Iran/Contra affair.
But there is something dangerous afoot for the masses when sex between consenting adults becomes a matter for criminal prosecution.
Then there are the many bad legal decisions which have been used to attack the President--that will have a negative impact on the masses. Hidden in the Starr Report is the story of how Monica Lewinsky was illegally taped, how she was kidnapped and held by federal agents, threatened with imprisonment if she didn't become a witness for the state, how her apartment was searched, her computer taken and erased files retrieved, how friends and family--including her psychological counselor--were dragged in to give testimony to the grand jury under threat of jail if they refused.
Ken Starr's view of the rule of law is very similar in many respects to the fascist rule of law being imposed by Mayor Giuliani in New York--where every minor infraction of the law becomes grounds for arrest and prosecution. But the legal set-up and railroad of the President also reflects the repressive pro-death penalty, three strikes program that Clinton himself has instituted--where half a million people have been incarcerated under his watch. One of the indictments against Clinton is that he wouldn't tell the grand jury all the details of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Ironically, Clinton found himself grasping for some of the very defendants' rights which his administration has worked to erode.
In my last story I wrote that this crisis seems to involve two intersecting forces and clashes: a far right reactionary social agenda vying for voice and position and some broader ruling class dismay over the "handling of the presidency." One thing that has become clearer, as events unfold, is the extent to which the forces represented by Ken Starr have been legitimized and embraced by the ruling class as a whole. First the power structure and the media mocked Hillary's statement that the political attack on Clinton was the product of a 'right-wing conspiracy.' Then they went ballistic when Clinton attacked Ken Starr in his August 17 conversation with the nation, and demanded a humble apology from Clinton.
When Clinton confessed that he had sinned at the White House prayer breakfast--comparing himself to King David asking God's forgiveness for having sex with Bathsheba--he was publicly bowing down before the Grand Inquisitor and pitching his remarks to the Christian right. He even went so far as to say that even if the Starr investigation was intrusive and unjust, it might be to the good. And when he finally got around to mentioning Monica Lewinsky in public as anything other than 'that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,' he brought up all this feudal ideology about apologizing to her family--as though Monica was the property of her family and his mistreatment of her was an affront to their family 'honor.'
I think it's pretty clear that the attack on Clinton was launched by a far right political network in the Republican Party--with much cooperation from the highest levels of the judiciary, including the U.S. Supreme Court. And when the broader power structure started ruling criticism of Starr out of order, they made some things clear. They said, sorry Bill and Hillary, you're not allowed to call out "right-wing conspiracies."
This shows that the right-wing conspiracy is in fact very real and powerful and the rest of the power structure does not want a war with them. And it also shows that the dominant forces in the U.S. power structure want the politics of these extreme conservatives and Christian fascists included in the mainstream debate. Meanwhile, the Clinton Democrats have been handicapped from mounting a vigorous political counteroffensive because they feared that they would be made to look ridiculous when Clinton's January denials fell apart.
Characterizing the fight in the bourgeoisie, the Wall Street Journal spoke of "two worlds that now compete for primacy in American politics": "One pleads for re-establishing commonly held rules of the road. The other insists that social and moral diversity has rendered such commonality impossible--and as they like to add, get used to it." The move toward impeachment shows something about the strength of those forces who want to aggressively reassert old-style reactionary American values.
There are other issues involved. It has been clear for some time--through Watergate and Iran/Gate--that the U.S. power structure is concerned about the accountability of the president. And the current crisis has become a way for many in the power structure to express concerns over Clinton's grasp of what it means to be the key player on the ruling class team. Now that Starr and the forces behind him have succeeded in their relentless siege, it has opened a can of worms.
Powerful forces are upset that Clinton's recklessness and stonewalling paved the way for the crisis to get this far--including concern that Starr's investigation has weakened the ability of any president to conduct affairs of state in secret. Clinton's cabinet and advisers are pissed, because back in January they took his public denials as a signal that he had the situation under control--only to find out eight months later that he was standing on a house of cards.
In many quarters there is a lot of damage control going on--expressed in calls for Clinton to resign and spare them the pain. And the entire ruling class is concerned about having a weakened President at a time when financial crisis is gripping Russia and Asia.
There is debate over censure or impeachment. And some in the bourgeoisie are openly arguing to let the impeachment process play itself out.
"Impeachment isn't fun," wrote Paul Gigot in the Wall Street Journal, "but the founders understood...that it could also be cleansing.... Impeachment hearings will force the country to have a much-needed debate about standards, both political and moral. An argument over Bill Clinton's misconduct won't be elegant, but it will set parameters for acceptable future behavior by all politicians."
Impeachment is a very big deal for the U.S. power structure--an event characterized by some bourgeois analysts as a non-violent revolution. How it will turn out we do not know. But what is clear is that a major national debate over political and moral standards is underway--and this reactionary circus is a perfect example of the democratic system in action.
This is a very strange moment for the people. Being a revolutionary I take heart when the ruling class is tearing each other to bits. And I think taking sides in this fight is a lose, lose situation for the people. But we can't leave it at that. Left to the power structure, it can be nothing but bad for the people. So I think it is very important for the people to step out and take on the whole patriarchal, sex police thang and the whole repressive prosecutorial atmosphere--and build our revolutionary struggle.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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