“Anyone Out There”? Reflections on the Obama Ascendancy and Progressive Surrender
If there is anyone out there who still questions the power of our democracy, this is you answer.
- Barack Obama on the night of his election to the United States presidency
CHANGES "FROM" OBAMA?
Recently a Canadian radio station asked me (and Bill Fletcher and Alexander Cockburn) the following questions: "what changes do you expect from an Obama presidency?"
The change I care about won't come "from" and Obama (or any other) United States presidency. It won't come from the top down. And it's not about the crystal ball.
My book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987)shows that Obama is strongly beholden to and identified with leading centers of concentrated economic and political power - large corporations and Wall Street, the Pentagon, and the foreign policy establishment. He never would have gotten to where he is today by rocking these dominant institutional boats.
"Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama," Ryan Lizza noted last July in The New Yorker, "is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them" (Lizza 2008)
As Edward S. Herman and David Peterson observe in an important recent Monthly Review article, "Obama has placated establishment circles on virtually every front imaginable, the candidate of ‘change we can believe in' has visited interest group after interest group to promise them that they needn't fear any change in the way they're familiar with doing business" (Herman and Peterson 2008).
It's not for nothing that Obama got $33 million from the finance, real estate and insurance industries (Center for Responsive Politics 2008)or that received remarkably favorable treatment from the monopoly media (Street 2008, pp.59-72).
Obama says that the U.S. owes the world no apology for any of its recent foreign policies (see Street 2008a for details and sources). He has repeatedly and absurdly claimed that "we" invaded Iraq with the "best of intentions" (democracy promotion and the like) and in order to help it (Street 2008, pp. 146-155, sub-titled "Obama, Iraq, and the Doctrine of Good Intentions"). He is a strong proponent of U.S. global military supremacy, arguing (in the Council of Foreign Relations' journal Foreign Affairs last year) that "The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew" and adding that "we must not rule out using military force" in pursuit of "our vital interests."
"A strong military," Obama wrote, "is, more than anything, necessary to sustain peace." We must "revitalize our military" to foster "peace," he argued, echoing Orwell, partly by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 to the Marines. Reassuring the more militarist segments of the power elite that he would not be hamstrung by international law and civilized norms when "our vital interests" (other people's oil reserves) are "at stake," Obama proclaimed that I will not hesitate to use force unilaterally, if necessary..." (Obama 2007).
The chance that such a politician will enact progressive (peace and justice) policies in the absence of mass pressure from a mobilized and angry citizenry is not very high. As Howard Zinn wrote earlier this year, "The Democratic Party has broken with its historic conservatism, its pandering to the rich, its predilection for war, only when it has encountered rebellion from below, as in the Thirties and the Sixties" (Zinn 2008).
The Obama administration will be no magical exception to that historical reality. We the people are going to have to hold its feet to the fire and push it left if we want good things "from an Obama presidency.
"Power," Frederick Douglass once observed, "never concedes without a fight."
If I must peer into the crystal ball, then health care seems like a good first place to fight with a good shot at success. Corporations tend to have a stranglehold on social policy in this country and they are exasperated with their giant employee health expenditures. It costs more to make a car in the U.S. than in Canada because the latter country has national health insurance.
If people are willing to fight for it, they can perhaps realistically look for significant health care reform - better than what the Clintons proposed in the early 1990s but short of Canadian-style single-payer - "from an Obama presidency."
The Canadian station also asked me a second question: "What are your thoughts on his policies regarding Afghanistan?"
Obama's call for escalating the invasion of Afghanistan (Street 2008b) - every bit as illegal as the one in Iraq - is revolting. Increasing the U.S. assault on that distant "graveyard of empires" will steal hundreds of billions of dollars from desperately needed social programs.
Americans interested in progressive change should fight Obama and the rest of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment on Afghanistan, on Iraq (where the U.S. has created a cumulative Holocaust over the last two decades), on the "defense" (Empire) budget (which should be cut by at least half so that we can address rising social needs at home and abroad), and on their refusal to admit the criminal immorality of the brazenly imperial policies Obama is inheriting.
"IF THERE'S ANYONE OUT THERE WHO STILL QUESTIONS THE POWER OF OUR DEMOCRACY..."
Obama is a ruling-class candidate with the mission of restoring democratic legitimacy to a rotten and authoritarian state-capitalist American System and Empire. The first public words out of his mouth on the evening of his election were richly consistent with that assignment: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible.....who still questions the power of our democracy," Obama intoned, "tonight is your answer."
Our supposed "left" President-Elect's first statement was NOT a call for peace, justice, and equality. It was a declaration bolstering the American plutocracy's ridiculous claim that the U.S. - the industrialized world's most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society by far - is home to a great democracy and limitless opportunity for all.
And what's with the word "still" (used twice) in Obama's assertion? It's not exactly like the case for the U.S. being a great popular democracy has been made with special, self-evident strength in recent times! The last three and a half decades have brought the deepening top-down infliction of a sharply of regressive corporate-neoliberal policies that are widely (but irrelevantly) repudiated by the majority of U.S. citizens.
In this century we've witnessed the execution of a monumentally criminal petro-imperialist Iraq Invasion sold to the U.S. populace by a spectacular state-media propaganda campaign (including preposterous claims of democratic intent Obama has embraced) that mocked and subverted the nation's democratic ideals. Dominant U.S. media's role in the invasion of Iraq marks perhaps the all-time low point of the "free press" in the U.S. As John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney recently noted in Monthly Review:
"Unlike the Korean War or the Vietnam War, the Iraq War (like the Gulf War before it) was preceded by a massive antiwar movement in the United States, demonstrating the willingness of the population to seek another way, opposed to militarism and imperialism. It was the monopoly media, far more concentrated than in [Henry] Luce's day [the early post-WWII era] and now virtually indistinguishable from monopoly finance capital (becoming simply its public voice), that came to the rescue of U.S. war capitalism in its moment of need, giving credence to obvious lies. ‘The press,' as one of us has written, ‘was [soon] eating out of the Bush administration's bowl.'.....the U.S. oligarchy was once again able to enlist the monopoly media in the marshaling of public opinion in support of the imperial project through the promotion of war hysteria. What made this possible was the prior existence of a well-oiled, privatized propaganda system designed to limit the range of legitimate debate in the mainstream media. In this system, even the outer reaches of the quite timid liberal punditocracy were strictly walled in to fit within the proscribed boundaries of elite debate. Today fundamental dissent toward the existence of the military-imperial system, no matter how thoughtful or well-informed, is decidedly off-limits, except for periodic ridicule. Ours is decidedly a ‘military-industrial-media complex'" (Foster, Holleman, and McChesney 2008)
The "democracy disconnect" - the gap (chasm really) between majority public opinion (which supports things like national universal health care, significant reductions in military expenditure and imperial commitment, massive public works, reduced corporate power, etc.) and "public" policy - is a widely acknowledged problem in American political life (see Street 2008 for details and sources). The specter of homeland totalitarianism - please see Sheldon Wolin's recent book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ, 2008) - has never loomed larger than in the opening decade of the 21st century,.
"If there is anyone who still questions the power of our democracy"...? How about: "Do we really have a functioning democracy in the U.S.?"
"BEFORE AND AFTER THOSE TWO MINUTES"
How far our corporate-"managed democracy" (Wolin's term) can be compelled to act in accord with majority opinion under Obama is an open question. Answering it in a positive and egalitarian way will be about "we the people" taking matters in our own hands and realizing that democracy is about the citizenry acting for popular governance and justice each and every day beneath and beyond quadrennial corporate-crafted and candidate-centered election extravaganzas. As Zinn noted last spring:
"The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that...the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us..."
"...But before and after those two minutes [of voting], our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice..."
"Let's remember that even when there is a ‘better' candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore...Today, we can be sure that the Democratic Party, unless it faces a popular upsurge, will not move off center. The two leading [Democratic] Presidential candidates have made it clear that if elected, they will not bring an immediate end to the Iraq War, or institute a system of free health care for all. They offer no radical change from the status quo. They do not propose what the present desperation of people cries out for: a government guarantee of jobs to everyone who needs one, a minimum income for every household, housing relief to everyone who faces eviction or foreclosure. They do not suggest the deep cuts in the military budget or the radical changes in the tax system that would free billions, even trillions, for social programs to transform the way we live" (Zinn 2008).
The points stands eight months later: only the people can make real change happen, from the bottom up.
ELECTIONS AS CHANGE
"In all of the post-election noise," a student recently wrote me, "I think one thing Obama said in his acceptance speech was completely right on: the election itself is not the ‘change' but simply the chance to make the changes we have to make. I know, I know, Obama was the ruling class candidate, but you have to admit that this represents at least symbolically a very good (first) step."
In the fifth paragraph of his acceptance oration, however, the President-Elect said that "because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America." That line (anyway) makes the election itself change.
Later in the speech Obama said that his election "proved that...a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth."
That was very premature. Whether or not that judgment proves accurate remains to be seen and the answer is up to citizens, not politicians. I'm no where near ready to put Wolin's book in the basement because of the neoliberal "conciliator" (MacFarquhar 2007) Barack Obama's election.
I've never said Obama was THE ruling class candidate, just A ruling class candidate. And for what it's worth, I agree with the following statement from Herman and Peterson: "Obama's race, his background, his enthusiastic, and less predictable constituency, and the occasional slivers of populism that creep into his campaign, make the establishment nervous, whereas Hillary Clinton and John McCain clearly posed no such threat" (Herman and Peterson 2008).
"CAREFULLY CRAFTING THE OBAMA BRAND"
"Our campaign," Obama announced last Tuesday night, "was not hatched in the halls of Washington."
Yes it was. "One evening in February 2005, in a four-hour meeting stoked by pepperoni pizza and great ambition," the Chicago Tribune reported last year, "Senator Barack Obama and his senior advisors crafted a strategy to fit the Obama ‘brand.'" The meeting took place just weeks after Obama had been sworn into the upper representative chamber of the United States government. According to the Tribune's Washington Bureau reporters Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons, in an article titled "Carefully Crafting the Obama Brand":
"The charismatic celebrity-politician had rocketed from the Illinois state legislature to the U.S. Senate, stirring national interest. The challenge was to maintain altitude despite the limited tools available to a freshman senator whose party was in a minority."
"Yet even in those early days, Obama and his advisors were thinking ahead. Some called it the ‘2010-2012-2016' plan: a potential bid for governor or re-election to the Senate in 2010, followed by a bid for the White House as soon as 2012, not 2016. The way to get there, they decided, was by carefully building a record that matched the brand identity: Obama as a unifier and consensus builder, and almost postpolitical leader."
"The staffers in that after-hours session, convened by Obama's Senate staff and including Chicago political advisor David Axlerod, planned a low-profile strategy that would emphasize workhorse results over headlines. Obama would invest in the long-term profile by not seeming too eager for the bright lights" (Dorning and Parsons 2007).
This Tribune story suggests a degree of cynicism, manipulation, and ambition that does not fit very well with the progressive and hopeful likeness that the Obama campaign projected. The politician being sold would make sure to seem non-ambitious and humble. But, by Dorning and Parsons' account, Obama and his team were actually and quite eagerly all about "the bright lights" and "the headlines" in a "long-term" sense. They were already scheming for the presidency less than a month into his Senate seat.
The image of Obama as a humble and hardworking rookie who got along with his colleagues across partisan lines part of their marketing strategy on the path to higher - the highest - office. Obama may have just become only third black to sit in the august U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, but for Obama and his team the Senate was largely a marketing platform for the Next Big Thing - a place to build his image as a "unifier" and "consensus builder." The term "Obama brand" suggested the commodified nature of a political culture that tends to reduce elections to corporate-"crafted" marketing contests revolving around candidate images packaged and sold by corporate consultants and public relations experts.
The fact that presidential opportunity knocked four years before 2012 does not alter the basic point.
Other "halls" of wealth and power also hatched Obama: LaSalle Street (Chicago's financial district), Wall Street (Goldman Sachs alone gave Obama nearly $900,000 for the 2007-08 campaign), and the halls of the monopoly media (see Silverstein 2006, Mendell 2007, Center for Responsive Politics 2008, and Street 2008, pp. xvii-72).
POWER ELITE CABINET APPOINTMENTS
Those remaining bizarre individuals on the lunatic fringe who "still question the power of our democracy" are going to be entertained and/or nauseated by "Obama Inc.'s" cabinet appointments. As the balmy populist warmth of Election Day (75 degrees and blue skies as I knocked doors for a statehouse Democrat and [believe it or not] Obama [quite effectively] in rural Iowa) gives way to the big chill (it was freezing in Iowa City by Friday) of corporate-imperial governance, Obama has already named the brass-knuckled power-elite enforcer Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff. This is a slap in the face to leftish progressives who think the next president is one of them.
Emmanuel is a former leading member of the corporate-neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Formed by business-oriented elites to increase the Democratic Party's distance from labor, environmentalism, blacks, and Civil Rights, the DLC's mission was to steer the party closer to the corporate, imperial, southern, suburban, and racially accomodationist center. It's goal was to advance post-partisan convergence between Democratic and Republican agendas and to impose economically and racially regressive polices underneath the cloak of "progressive" strategy and "pragmatic" "realism."
Emmanuel was a leading Clinton administration agent of the corporate-globalizationist investors-rights bill called the "North American Free Trade Agreement." He is a leading liaison between corporate funding sources and the Democratic Party.
The son a wealthy Israeli doctor, he is a fierce defender of Israel's apartheid regime and its illegal occupation of Palestine.
He played a critical role in favoring conservative and pro-war Democrats over progressive antiwar Democrats during the 2006 congressional primaries.
The rest of Obama's cabinet appointments should follow in much the same vein. Expect Republican imperialist Robert Gates (who advocated the straight-up U.S. bombing of Nicaragua in the name of the Monroe Doctrine during the early 1980s) to stay on as "Defense" Secretary for at least a year. In the campaign home stretch, Obama bought into the noxious notion that the Bush-Patraeus-Gates "Surge" is "working" ("beyond our wildest dreams" he told FOX News thug Bill O'Reilly) in Iraq
We will certainly get somebody from the neoliberal Wall-Street-Goldman Sachs-Harvard-University of Chicago-Hamilton Group crowd in Treasury - a seasoned state-capitalist apparatchik who understands the need to bail out the wealthy Few, not ordinary homeowners and workers. Top Obama economic adviser Lawrence Summers could well be brought in, despite (a) his scandalous claim that females are genetically unfit for science; (b) his claim (as World Bank economist) that Africa was under-polluted since people don't live very long there anyway; and (c) his critical role (along with Robert Rubin, another possibility at Treasury) in advancing the financial deregulation that helped create the recent meltdown of U.S. and global financial markets.
Look for a foreign policy post of some sort to go to Richard Holbrooke, a major Iraq War Hawk, largely indistinguishable from Paul Wolfowitz on Iraq and the broader Middle East. Holbrooke's resume includes authorizing (during his time as a State Department functionary in the Carter administration) the continued sale of arms to Indonesia while its military conducted a genocidal invasion of East Timor during the middle and late 1970s.
I could go on.
"I CAN'T READ THAT"
Are progressive people I used to like and take seriously really going to let themselves be turned reactionaries and/or fools by the Obama phenomenon?
The great progressive filmmaker Michael Moore says this on his Web site: "Never before in our history has an avowed anti-war candidate been elected president during a time of war" (Moore 2008). Obama is an "anti-war candidate?" Yes, and Love is Hate. I tried to write Moore to suggest that he read my book's fourth chapter (titled "How ‘Antiwar'? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire"), but his mailbox was full.
A left labor historian I've worked with has admonished me for criticizing Obama, who (the historian hopes) will bring the Employee Free Choice Act (re-legalizing and expanding unions). Well, the EFCA is in Obama's policy book and I'm going to work for it but mark my words: it'll have to be fought for tooth-and-nail against the likes of Emmanuel, Summers, and Obama's own "deeply conservative" (MacFarquhar 2007) instincts. (This morning on ABC, the neoconservative commentator and Obama fan George Will said that president Obama might well be pleased to see the EFCA fail since it could end up being for the new administration what "gays in the military" was for Bill Clinton).
An old friend used to be a very smart Marxist and was an early member of SDS - a real New Leftist. She refused to be given - yes, refused to be given - a copy of my very careful and respectful book on the Obama phenomenon. "I can't read that," she said. Some of the names on names on the back of the book (Adolph Reed Jr., Noam Chomsky, and John Pilger) are former icons of hers (she introduced me to the writings of Adolph Reed, Jr in the mid-1990s.) but now she's in love with Obama. "It's the best thing that could happen," she says about his election. She's repudiated her radical past and agrees with centrist American Enterprise Institute (AEI)"scholar" Norman Ornstein's recent ravings on how "the left" must not press Obama for very much right now (Ornstein's AEI-funded admonitions have recently been broadcast again and again across America's wonderful "public" broadcasting stations -- : "N'PR and "P"BS). .
Paul Krugman in the New York Times (a left-liberal Obama critic during the primary campaign) says there's "something wrong with you" if you weren't "teary-eyed" about Obama's election (Krugman 2008). Yes, numerous other radicals and I need to be put under psychiatric care because we didn't cry over the militantly bourgeois and openly imperialist Obama's presidential selection.
We have the increasingly unglued white anti-racist Tim Wise saying "Screw You" to Obama's harshest radical critics (Wise 2008) - this after recklessly charging racism against working-class whites (see Wise 2008b) and Hillary Clinton supporters (Wise 2008a) who have any issues with (the racially conciliatory) Obama.
Half-progressive liberals I know in Iowa City (white-academic-Obamaist ground zero) ask my opinion of the election. I express the slightest hint of substantive, evidence-based left critique/concern and they turn away.
The local bookstore, run by progressives (left-liberal Edwards supporters during the Iowa Caucus) are wiling to sell my book but "too scared" to have an author event.
Few if any of these people have bothered to read a single solitary word of Obama's blatantly imperial, nationalist, and militarist foreign policy speeches and writings. And my sense is they never will. They do not care about such primary sources in the ongoing history of the Obama phenomenon.
For the last two years talking to many liberals and avowed "progressives" I know about Obama - who I picked to be the next president in the fall of 2006 (I thought he was too simultaneously irresistible to both the power elite and the liberal base not to prevail) - has been like talking to Republicans about George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and 2004: no room for messy and inconvenient facts.
I am hearing people of color identify with the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq in ways that would be unimaginable without Obama. This may be the worst thing of all.
Obama is an act of system-legitimizing brilliance - a tour de force for the ruling class.
He has been chosen to wear the Empire's new clothes. He is the "managed democracy's" fake-progressive public relations makeover.
Meanwhile the real heartland white fascists - the ones Wise doesn't make up - are buying up assault weapons at a record pace.
We have a fascinating political culture.
Paul Street's books include Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2004); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York, 2007), and most recently Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, September 2008), which can be ordered at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987. Paul can be reached at email@example.com
Center for Responsive Politics 2008. "Open Secrets - 2008 Presidential Candidates," www.opensecrets.org.
Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons 2007. "Carefully Crafting the Obama Brand," Chicago Tribune, 12 June, 2007, sec.1. p.1. .:
John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman, and Robert W. McChesney, "The U.S. Imperial Triangle and Military Spending," Monthly Review (October 2008), read at http://www.monthlyreview.org/081001foster-holleman-mcchesney.php
Edward S. Herman and D. Peterson 2008. "Jeremiah Wright in the Propaganda System," Monthly Review (September 2008).
Paul Krugman 2008. The Obama Agenda," New York Times (November 7, 2008).
Ryan Lizza 2008. "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama," The New Yorker (July 21, 2008).
Larissa MacFarquhar 2007. "The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?," The New Yorker (May 7, 2007).
David Mendell 2007. Obama: From Promise to Power (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).
Michael Moore 2008. "Pinch Me," ZNet (November 5, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/19359
Barack Obama 2007. "Renewing American Leadership," Foreign Affairs (July/August 2007), read online at http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070701faessay86401/barack-obama/renewing-american-leadership.html.
Ken Silverstein 2006. "Barack Obama, Inc.: The Birth of a Washington Machine," Harper's (November 2006
Paul Street 2008. Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008).
Paul Street 2008a. "Obama's Letters of No Apology," Dissident Voice (August 9, 2008), read at http://www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/08/obamas-letters-of-no-apology/
Paul Street 2008b. "Obama's Good and ‘Proper' War," ZNet (March 5, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/16760
Paul Street 2008c. "Americans' Progressive Opinions vs. ‘The Shadow Cast on Society by Big Business,'" ZNet Sustainer Commentary (May 15, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/zspace/commentaries/3491
Tim Wise 2008. "Good and Now Back to Work," ZNet (November 6, 2008), read at http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/19398
Tim Wise 2008a. "Your Whiteness is Showing," LIP Magazine (June 5, 2008), read at http://www.lipmagazine.org/~timwise/WhitenessShowing.html
Tim Wise 2008b. "This is How Fascism Comes," Red Room (October 11, 2008), read at http://www.redroom.com/blog/tim-wise/this-how-fascism-comes-reflections-cost-silence
Howard Zinn 2008."Election Madness," The Progressive (March 2008).