Brave New America: On Corporate Totalitarianism, Electoralist Passivity, and Inauthentic Opposition
In a truly participatory democracy elections would constitute but one element in a process of popular discussion, consultation, and involvement. Today, elections have replaced participation...Elections enact a kind of primal myth in which “the people” designate who is to rule them...an election, at one and the same time, empowers a Few and causes the Many to submit, to consent to be obedient.
- Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 147-148.
This news overdose on the elections has bred a kind of passivity among millions, as they wait in front of TV screens and computers, like deer caught in headlights.
- Mumia Abu Jamal, ZNet (August 10, 2008)
My forthcoming book “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics” (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, August 2008) exposes Barack Obama as a conservative, corporate, militarist Democrat posing as a democratic progressive. It provides a detailed empirical case for this judgment and an analysis of how true progressives (those who advocate actual left, radical, social-democratic policies in the United States) can most effectively respond to the Obama phenomenon – and to the broader corporate-controlled political system and culture it reflects – whether Obama wins or loses. Key to any such response is answering a number of questions: To what extent are U.S. government and political culture meaningfully democratic in the 21st century? What if Obama’s deeply deceptive promise of “change” is part of an effort by dominant U.S. political and economic elites to preserve and expand the American System’s antidemocratic characteristics and nature? How should (true) progressives think about the meaning of Obamaism as they struggle for democratic transformation in the U.S.?
In seeking to answer the first question, we can turn to an important new book from someone who has long operated in the intellectual heart of the beast. According to Princeton emeritus political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s chilling new volume Democracy, Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008), the United States is becoming a totalitarian state posing as a democracy. Under the rules of what Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism,” corporate and state power have become deeply “co-joined” and practically “unbridled.” The popular majority of the citizenry – the People – in whose name U.S. “democracy” purports to function is politically uninterested, infantilized, obedient, distracted, and divided. An increasingly spectator-ized and subordinate public is shepherded by the professional political class across a painfully narrow business- and Empire-friendly field of political, policy, and ideological “choices.” Those harshly limited options are presented in periodic superficial, candidate-centered and corporate-crafted elections that function as anti-democratic exercises in capitalist marketing and managerial control. These spectacular rolling extravaganzas privilege candidate image and other trivial matters over substantive questions of policy and ideology, with campaign consultants and advertisers selling candidates like they sell candy or cars. They help keep the interrelated issues of the ever-growing rich-poor gap, corporate power, and imperial militarism (the last two topics are taboo in “mainstream” U.S. political life) “off the table” of acceptable debate and public scrutiny even though they are of primary interest to most American citizens. By Wolin’s account:
“The citizenry, supposedly the source of governmental power and authority as well as participant, has been replaced by the ‘electorate,’ that is, by voters who acquire a political life at election time. During the intervals between elections the political existence of the citizenry is relegated to a shadow-citizenship of virtual participation. Instead of participating in power, the virtual citizen is invited to have ‘opinions’: measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them” (p. 59).
“…In elections parties set out to mobilize the citizen-as-voter, to define political obligation as fulfilled by the casting of a vote. Afterwards, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests – the real players – takes over. The effect is to demobilize the citizenry, to teach them not to be involved or to ponder matters that are either settled or beyond their efficacy” (p. 205).”
Once votes have been counted (or not) in America’s totalitarian system, the people” fade back into the woodwork. Politicians from both sides of the nation’s corporate-sponsored “one-and-a-half party system” – the more explicitly authoritarian Republicans or the “inauthentic opposition” advanced by neoliberal corporate Democrats (whose 2004 presidential candidate made a point of stating his opposition to the redistribution of wealth) – proceed to do precisely what the American ex-citizenry wishes them not to do. They advance empire, inequality, and repression, concentrating riches and power ever further upward in what has long been the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society.
American “democracy” has been “domesticated” by modern managerial business technique. Its wild democratic risk has been removed for and by the Few. It has been quietly subsumed by corporation, whose mission is to guarantee returns on capital by minimizing chance and maintaining a “stable” environment (including a safely supine domestic population) for investors. Democracy has been incorporated.
In this pseudo-democratic Brave New America, corporate power no longer answers to political controls. The needs of the popular majority are relentlessly subordinated to the “quest for ‘economic growth’” and to the foreign policy elite’s imperial perceptions of “Superpower’s” needs and the so-called “national interest.” “Economic growth” and “national interest” are code words for whatever capital wants and cloak the regular state-capitalist practice of funneling wealth and power from the Many to the Few. The demoted “people” are kept in perpetual fear and prodded to cower under the umbrella of the National Insecurity State by an endless so-called “War on Terror,” heir to the imperial Cold War. The Few steal elections are pocketed, shred civil liberties, and launch illegal, immoral, and aggressive wars and occupation without serious fear of popular resistance. Young black males – formerly a leading source of protest – are dragooned into the burgeoning mass incarceration state. The use of state power to alleviate poverty and ameliorate inequality is shamed as dangerous public overreach but the use of that power to shamelessly advance corporate interests and pay off big money election investors is celebrated in the ironic name of the “free market.” Working peoples’ living standards are savagely rolled back and working-class sons and daughters are shipped off to kill and die in bloody campaigns of colonial conquest – wars that are waged on false pretexts and serve the interests of the Few while the costs are spread across society and fall with special force on the poor. It’s a “Hood-Robin” system.
Policy-relevant political power is “monopolized by the Few,” who “possess the skills, resources, and focused time that enables them to impose their will on a society the vast majority of whose members are overburdened and distracted by the demands of day-to-day survival” (p. 277). Those demands grow ever more difficult as corporate and imperial masters deepen their stranglehold over American politics, policy, culture, and “life.” It’s a vicious circle that threatens to blow out democracy’s last glowing embers in the “land of the free.”
This American “totalitarianism” promotes more than just specific policies and practices that serve the corporate and financial “elite.” It also advances a “totalizing” and authoritarian notion of the perfect and final society. The 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States defines America’s grand historical mission as advancing “freedom” and the “single sustainable model of for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise” along with “development, free trade, and free markets.” As Wolin notes, “the freedoms dangled before the unfree are, in reality, disguised power” – the heavily state-protected and publicly subsidized power of multinational corporations, global high finance, and the military empire required to advance and protect capitalist profit (“development”) on a global scale. “When the NSS document presents the ‘free market’ as one of the three components of the ideal political system,” Wolin observes, “the market is a surrogate, a stand-in for globalization/empire” (p. 85).
Brave New America
Wolin calls the American pseudo-democratic political system “inverted totalitarianism” to differentiate it from the openly statist totalitarianism of classic European fascism (principally German Nazism) and Soviet Stalinism. The earlier totalitarian systems mobilized millions to rally behind centralized state power and a single personal ruler. They explicitly and rapidly demolished democratic and parliamentary institutions and elevated personalized state rule over markets and private profit. The American model, by contrast, has evolved more slowly and under the guise – and in the name of – of democratic institutions and ideals, without open authoritarian intent. It “succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization.” It “relies more on ‘private’ media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events” (p. 44). It makes “capitalism” its official “regime ideology,” trumpeting the virtues of “free markets,” “free trade,” and “free enterprise” (code words for authoritarian state-capitalist corporate-managerial rule), which are falsely conflated “democracy.”
“Inverted totalitarianism” wraps itself in the language and lingering, watered-down legacy of democratic freedom and constitutionalism. It advances “leaders” who are the products but not the architects of the system. It does not crush popular government under the iron heel of dictatorship but rather renders democracy ever-more feckless and irrelevant through regular systemic corruption, popular exhaustion, cultural privatism, popular division/diversion, mass misinformation, and mass entertainment.
Unlike classic 20th century fascist and Soviet (red fascist) totalitarianism, it requires no great sacrifice or strength on the part of its subject populace. It creates a “soft,” childish, and fearful citizenry that is asked mainly to buy things, to watch their telescreens (which largely filter and package the world in terms fit for corporate and imperial hegemony), and perhaps to occasionally vote for its favorite corporate-vetted and “misrepresentative” political candidates every few years.
“Inverted totalitarianism’s” ideal “good Americans” pretty much stay at work, home, the bank, and the mall. They are happy to leave big political and policy decisions and public affairs to designated experts and protectors from the professional political class that has emerged to serve the combined and interrelated interests of the corporate and imperial Few. In Wolin’s view, it represents the corporate-era fulfillment of the British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ arch-authoritarian notion – developed in Hobbes’s book Leviathan (1651) – of the good society as one that combines the absolute power of the ruler with a populace that loathes and runs from political engagement:
“Leviathan was the first image of superpower and the first intimation of the kind of privatized citizen congenial with its requirements, the citizen who finds politics a distraction to be avoided, who if denied ‘a hand in public business,’ remains convinced that taking an active part means to ‘to hate and be hated,’ ‘without any benefit,’ and ‘to neglect the affairs of [his] own family.’ Hobbes had not only foreseen the power possibilities in the oxymoron of private citizen, but exploited them to prevent sovereign power from being shared among its subjects. Hobbes reasoned that if individuals were protected in their interests and positively encouraged by the state to pursue the wholeheartedly, subject only to laws designed to safeguard them from the unlawful acts of others, then they would soon recognize that political participation was superfluous, expendable, not a rational choice. Civic indifference was thus elevated to a form of rational virtue,...[justifying the emergence of] an apolitical citizenry...[immersed in] private concerns” (p.75).
Classic totalitarianism assembled, rallied, and projected the “masses.” It beat up, intimidated, arrested, tortured, and killed dissenters. By contrast, the American model of totalitarianism demobilizes and inverts the populace, keeping it (us) focused on personal, private, and family concerns – and on its corporate telescreens. Antiwar and social justice activists don’t generally have to be beaten and jailed; they are deleted and occasionally mocked and marginalized on the Ten O’Clock News, leaving little mark on degraded public perceptions and history.
“Inverted totalitarianism’s” pacified, apathetic, ignorant, and deceived public is content to leave history to be made by supposedly wise and benevolent masters like Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, James Baker, and Donald Rumsfeld, who follow in the Nazis’ footsteps by launching criminal and supposedly “preventive” wars of aggression sold on brazenly false pretexts that are dutifully advanced by dominant media, including the Orwellian claim to be exporting democracy through colonial conquest. Since the Few learned from Vietnam not to send a citizen’s army into bloody colonial “service,” today’s wars are fought by a safely segregated caste of mostly working class imperial mercenaries.
In Brave New America, the People do not need to be hardened and rallied to inflict violence on designated ideological and ethnic enemies of the state at home or abroad. Their main jobs are to buy stuff, watch their telescreens and pursue their private interests. The definition of meaningful popular participation in the polity is reduced largely to casting an occasional vote in carefully crafted elections where none of the candidates are foolish enough to think they could run viably funded and broadcast campaigns in the name of the social-democratic and anti-imperial beliefs that most Americans privately and passively tell pollsters they hold. Meanwhile the ex-citizenry is encouraged to believe that it is charge of the nation.
There is no serious push back in the corporate media, naturally enough, or even in the universities, since “the Academy ha[s] become self-pacifying” (p. 68). As for the Democrats, Wolin observes that they offer no real or relevant opposition to the more explicitly plutocratic and militarist despotism of the Republicans. If anything, Wolin argues, the Democratic Party deepens “inverted totalitarianism’s” hold by capturing and co-opting reformist impulses within a broadly corporatist framework and by enhancing the illusion of meaningful popular representation within a system designed to keep the populace and democracy at bay:
“The Democrats’ politics might be described as inauthentic opposition in the era of Superpower. Having fended off its reformist elements and disclaimed the label of liberal, [the Democratic Party] is trapped by new rules of the game which dictate that a party exists to win elections rather than to promote a vision of the good society. Accordingly, the party competes for an apolitical segment of the electorate, ‘the undecided,’ and puzzles how best to woo religious zealots. Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society. At best Democrats might repair some of the damage done to environmental safeguards or to Medicare without substantially reversing the drift rightwards. By offering palliatives, a Democratic administration contributes to plausible denial about the true nature of the system. By fostering an illusion among the powerless classes that the party can make their interests a priority, it pacifies and thereby defines the style of an opposition part in an inverted totalitarian system. In the process it demonstrates the superior cost-effectiveness of inverted totalitarianism over the crude classic versions” (p. 201).
Capitalism v. Democracy: “The Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie”
Wolin’s book is not without problems. Its annotation and detailed reference to current and recent events is painfully thin. It spends too much time on classical antiquity and past thinkers (the U.S. Founders, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Tocqueville) relative to more modern U.S. business and political history and current events. It pays essentially no attention to the concrete empirical record of corporate evolution and rule and narrow-spectrum, business-friendly politics in U.S. history – a record that predates the Progressive Era (1900-1920), when the American philosopher John Dewey rightly proclaimed that U.S. “politics are the shadow cast on society by big business.” As the historian Richard Hofstader noted sixty years ago in his widely read text The American Political Tradition “the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major [U.S.] parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise…They have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man…That culture has been intensely nationalistic.” (Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage, 1989 ), pp.xxxiii-xl).
Wolin seems remarkably unaware of, or unwilling to cite, Left thinkers who have written valuable works on capitalism, imperialism, and the trumping of American and Western “democracy” by concentrated economic and political power. Some of the ignored names that come to mind are Charles Derber (who writes in interesting and informative ways about successive “corporate regimes” that have ruled American politics since the late 19th century), C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, Ralph Milliband, Ellen Meiksens-Wood, Alex Carey (an expert on corporate propaganda’s longstanding war on U.S. democracy), William T. Robinson, Jeff Faux, Joel Bakan, William Greider, David Montgomery, and (last but not least) Noam Chomsky.
Given Wolin’s taste for historical texts and theories on politics, I was disappointed that he did not join Chomsky in citing Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson on the core contradiction between wealth inequality (an inherent characteristic and tendency of capitalism) and democracy. Then there’s the largely invisible (in Wolin’s book) Karl Marx, for whom capitalist democracy, being a system of class rule, amounted to a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” Democracy and capitalism have never mixed and never will, as generations of progressive thinkers have long argued.
Wolin underestimates or ignores the significant extent to which German Nazism reflected and acted on the desires of the German bourgeoisie.
Wolin writes in often excessively abstract and academic language despite his book’s popular, general-audience title. This style cannot help but ironically limit his book’s relevance as an antidote to elitism.
He missed, I think, a good opportunity to capture the often forgotten significance of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, as relevant to the United States’ particular brand of authoritarianism as George Orwell’s more Soviet-focused Nineteen Eighty Four. In Huxley’s dystopia, corporate-state masters divert people away from meaningful matters of serious public concern, transporting them to politically harmless states of childish amusement, personal preoccupation, and drugged, narcissistic fascination.
Wolin shows no appreciation of left “cultural theory” since Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, ignoring thinkers (themselves admittedly often hyper-abstract) who contributed critically to the analysis of corporate totalitarianism and capitalist cultural hegemony.
Wolin ignores the large number of Americans who do seem to represent efforts towards a mobilized far-right project. I am thinking here especially of the evangelical “American fascists” that Chris Hedges has warned us about across the vast swaths of so-called “Red State America.”
Last but not least, Wolin’s core terminology is highly problematic. Charles Derber’s more concrete historical notion of successive and inherently authoritarian corporate regimes – Derber places us in the age of the “third corporate regime,” dominated by the transnational corporation, aggressive global Empire, and rampant social insecurity at home – is much better than Wolin’s somewhat abstract and potentially bewildering concept of “inverted totalitarianism.” As a Kansas-based progressive- Democratic activist (who prefers to remain anonymous) recently wrote to me in a thoughtful reflection on Wolin’s book:
“Wolin's term ‘totalitarian’ is a fabulous contribution, but to say it is ‘inverted’ is not a viable, easily grasped, understandable label. It is too easily interpreted as ‘opposite.’ I think it is far better to say the corporate regime IS a form of totalitarian governance or is totalitarian via managed, intentional propaganda, apathy, ignorance, passivity, a lack of spare time, and a two-party, money-controlled, corrupt, plutocratic system. If I had to pick one adjective to distinguish American ‘totalitarianism’ from the fascist, violence-based systems of Hitler and Stalin I wouldn't say ‘inverted’ but would say (ala Huxley) ‘pacified totalitarian’ or ‘propaganda-based totalitarian’ or ‘money-controlled totalitarian.’ ‘Inverted’ seems confusing at best.”
Still, Wolin has done some very important and properly dark descriptive work on the United States’ dangerously constricted political culture at this terrible stage in the development of Brave New America. As the liberal political scientist Robert Dahl noted in 1959: “[If] political preferences are simply plugged into the system by leaders [business or other] in order to extract what they want from the system, then the model of plebiscitary democracy is substantially equivalent to the model of totalitarian rule” (Robert Dahl, “Business and Politics: a Critical Appraisal of Political Science,” in Robert Dahl, ed., Social Science Research on Business: Product and Potential [New York, 1959], p. 53).
That’s pretty much where we are half a century later in “America, the greatest democracy that money can [and did] buy.” In its presidential as in its other elections, Laurence Shoup noted last February, U.S. “democracy” is “at best” a “guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population projects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion,” Shoup claims – correctly in my opinion – “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate” (Laurence H. Shoup, “The Presidential Election 2008,” Z Magazine, February 2008, p. 31). Beneath and beyond the regular, much-ballyhooed election spectacles, wealth and power are concentrated ever-further upward over and above the sadly irrelevant U.S. public’s secretly progressive, social-democratic and anti-imperial policy preferences. Because of this chasm between public opinion and policy, the People find no meaningful institutional and political expression in “Superpower’s” “managed” and “ersatz-,” “pseudo’” and even “anti-“democracy” – thus the reality of its totalitarian nature.
It is probably useful to have the full authoritarian darkness of this harsh reality acknowledged and described by someone like Wolin. He is an Ivy League academician who has long operated from within the elite mainstream of U.S. social science and not on the “lunatic fringe” to which serious left-progressive thinkers are sadly consigned in the American ideological system – consistent with the notion that U.S. government and political culture are totalitarian.
Brave New HOPE
As the 2008 elections loom ever closer, bearing the possibility of a first black president, is the former community organizer Barack Obama a hopeful anomaly for Wolin’s thesis? While it is nice to see Obama sparking many Americans, especially young adults, at least momentarily willing to shed Thomas Hobbesian disdain for politics, I am afraid (as my forthcoming book documents in detail)that the answer is decidedly no. Beneath Obama’s occasionally inspiring rhetoric about taking Washington back from special big money interests (the folks “who write the big checks” in his language to trade unionists in Chicago last year) and restoring government to ordinary people and beyond the excitement over his mixed-race identity, the “deeply conservative” (Larissa MacFarquhar’s accurate and supposedly flattering description in The New Yorker last year: “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” May 7, 2007), Obama’s actual policy positions have been consistently conciliatory towards concentrated economic and political power and are thus supportive of the totalitarian corporate regime in power. Having quietly distanced himself from “the label of liberal,” he has bent over backwards to demonstrate his safety to, and faith in, reigning domestic and imperial hierarchies, missions, and doctrines. On one issue after another and in his broad declarations on America’s nature and global role, Obama offers no essential challenge to the U.S. corporate-military totalitarian state or to the ideologies and American Exceptionalist mythology that defend and sustain it. He has gone to remarkable, often grotesque lengths to reassure corporate and imperial elites that he is fully on board with the perverted priorities and self-justifying national myths of American “free enterprise” and globalism. He has made it abundantly clear to the powers that be that he will reward his leading corporate sponsors – Goldman Sachs (source of $628,000 worth of Obama contributions through June of 2008), JP Morgan Chase ($523,000), Citigroup ($394,000), UBSAG ($378,000), and Google ($373,000) et al. – with a centrist “Obamanomics” that places corporate rule and neoliberal “free market” (state-capitalist) imperatives beyond serious question. Thus he is a covert defender of Wolin’s Brave New America.
For all Obama’s talk about activating the popular base to bring about “change from the bottom up,” moreover, he is making his own ironic contribution to the de-mobilization of the citizenry. Part of this contribution comes from his militantly centrist, neoliberal, and ever more rightward policy agenda, which is noticeably bereft of populist inspiration. I recently sat through a tiresome Obama “Town Hall” on “Economic Security” before hundreds of relatively unenthused supporters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Beyond some brief chest-pounding about Exxon-Mobil’ s latest profits and “big oil’s” campaign contributions to McCain, the content and tone of Obama’s policy presentation was positively Dukakisian. It was very University of Chicago, loaded with arcane neoliberal policy wonkery that may have countered McCain’s picture of him as an empty-headed celebrity (ala Paris Hilton) but also left much of the audience cold and bored. It seemed almost calculated not to mobilize people for an epic confrontation with the vicious arch-plutocratic and messianic-militarist bastards behind the McCain campaign. A former John Edwards staffer who cringed through the event with me asked “where’s the red meat?” I imagined millions of formerly engaged Obama supporters returning to full-blown Wolin-esque inversion – their hope for reform shattered and their desire to avoid politics reinstated – when and if Obama’s tepid, business- and Empire-friendly campaign goes the way of Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry.
“Like Deer Caught in Headlights”
Another part of Obama’s contribution to the totalitarian popular demobilization project comes from his campaign’s ironic parallel cultivation of the deceptive and richly media-assisted image of Obama as some sort of passionate man of the people walking in the footsteps of the social justice movement leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Team Obama has expertly cloaked their corporate-imperial candidate in the deceptive rebel’s clothing. In the last year I have seen dozens of deluded white liberals wearing t-shirts that combine the images of the social-democratic anti-militarist Dr. King with that of the openly capitalist and militarist Obama. Large swaths of the progressive base have been caught up in the false notion of Obama as a magical “true progressive” (many liberals and leftists are childishly willing to see him as a “stealth” left actor hiding behind a centrist façade) whose ascendancy to the White House will amount to something along the lines of a democratic revolution. Their Golden Child offers “HOPE” for dramatic if rather vaguely defined “change” somewhere over the rainbow after January 2009, giving unsophisticated, uninformed, and/or cynical “progressives” yet another reason NOT to participate in day-to-day grassroots struggles against economic inequality, racism, militarism, plutocracy, sexism, and eco-cide and for a more truly responsive and democratic political culture. The progressive Obama illusion is expanding the electorate but perhaps shrinking the citizenry, which is powerfully encouraged by the Obama phenomenon to equate meaningful democratic engagement with momentary participation in the “managed democracy’s” latest quadrennial narrow-spectrum corporate-crafted candidate-centered electoral extravaganza. As Mumia Abu –Jamal recently noted:
“If TV channels are any measure, the U.S. presidential elections, now less than 4 months away, are the permanent stuff of headlines.”
“If candidate A sneezes, it's breaking news; if candidate B hiccups, it's film at eleven.”
“It's hardly worthy of headlines, but the beast [the media] must be fed.”
“For far too many people this news overdose on the elections has bred a kind of passivity among millions, as they wait in front of TV screens and computers, like deer caught in headlights.”
“What happened to anti-war protests?”
“What happened to housing rights protestors?”
“What happened to anti-FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) activists?”
“People are dulled by the almost sure expectation that the Democrats will prevail in the next election due to the low ratings of the Republican Party, and its lame duck President George W. Bush.”
“And those dull expectations are based upon the totally unfounded faith that a Democratic win of the White House really means an end to the war. (We might ask, which war?)”
“Millions have apparently forgotten the bitter lessons from the 2006 mid term election, when Democrats prevailed in congressional elections, formed a slight majority in both houses, and proceeded to do - nothing.”
“Peace in Iraq? Off the table. Instead, like lemmings leaping off a cliff they voted for more and more billions for war.”
“And what of the recently renewed FISA bill, which legalized the law-breaking of the Bush Administration - and gave retroactive protection to phone and communications companies which violated prior law?”
“FISA - signed, sealed and delivered: and even the Democratic candidate (Sen. Barack Obama, D.IL), who blasted the measure, put his John Hancock on it, voting 'yes.'”
“The great abolitionist (and women's right supporter), Frederick Douglass, supported Abraham Lincoln, yet that didn't stop him from protesting against him, when he moved too slowly, or not at all. Reading his criticisms are still biting, even though over a century has passed. And yet, his teaching remains just as relevant, for Douglass said, ‘Power concedes nothing without demand.’” (Mumia Abu-Jamal, “Beyond Politics,” ZNet [August 10, 2008], http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/commentaries/3581)
My current home town of Iowa City (a true ground zero for white-liberal middle-class Obamaism) is an excellent case in point. Countless white “progressives” and “liberals” here will tell you that they support Obama because he embodies their claims to oppose militarism, racism, and social injustice. Their often shocking levels of ignorance about Obama’s actually conservative record on those subjects – straight out of Wolin’s text on the Democrats’ “inauthentic opposition” – would be at least partly forgivable if you saw more (well, any) of them in local meetings and organizations fighting against empire, inequality, war, racism, and repression on a daily and regular basis. The ersatz electoral “democracy” of Obama’s corporate campaign has also become an ersatz social movement, with disastrous antidemocratic consequences.
Meanwhile, there is a real danger that many of Obama‘s followers will re-“invert” even just from electoral politics when it becomes more clear to them that he is in fact an epitome of “Democracy, Inc.” and when (even if Obama wins) “the post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests” (Wolin) sets in.
But disappointed popular expectations are a double-edged sword. The likelihood that an Obama White House will dash popular hopes for democratic transformation should not necessarily be a source of depression for those who remain attached to progressive and true democratic ideals. Such disappointment might help move the People off what Derber aptly calls “The Election Trap” – the belief that serious progressive change is mainly about voting (Derber, Hidden Power [San Francisco, 2005], pp. 6-9) – and into building the sort of grassroots and political movements that have been the main force behind real progressive change in U.S. history. As one progressive economist told In These Times’ writer David Moberg last March, “the fact that he’s raising hope, that’s tremendously important...revolutions, historian Barrington Moore argued, come when there are rising expectations.”
For this positive dialectical outcome to be realized, it is critical that concerned citizens and activists possess an accurate sense of what exactly it is that will have failed when Obama if defeated by McCain. It is equally critical that they understand what did and did not succeed if Obama wins and then (as my book predicts) betrays his populist and peaceful-sounding campaign promises. Obamaism’s shortcomings are the failures of the Democratic Party’s longstanding corporate-imperial centrism and of the dominant narrow political culture that pits an arch-plutocratic, extremist military party (the faux-“conservative” Republicans) against the “inauthentic opposition” of the conservative, faux progressive, and corporate-neoliberal Democrats and leaves no room for non-corporate parties that accurately reflect majority progressive opinion. The failures of Obama must NOT be attributed simply to the “the People” or to “the Left, “such as it is. However much popular forces have failed to perceive the corporate and imperial reality of Obama, his failures will result form his unwillingness or inability to represent the popular majority against the third corporate regime.
My forthcoming book could serve the Obama campaign insofar as it effectively refutes the ludicrous, arch-authoritarian FOX News charge that Obama is some kind of “far left” opponent of American capitalism, racism, and globalism. Given my own actually “far Left” progressive background and commitments, my main purpose in writing this book is rather different. It is to help actual U.S. progressives maintain and expand their capacity to fight for substantive democratic transformation beneath and beyond “Obamania” and the next corporate-managed election extravaganza, whatever its outcome.
In the United States’ dangerously narrow, corporate-totalitarian political culture, many people can't process serious and substantive criticism of the Obama phenomenon from the left as anything but an argument to elect John McCain and/or a purely personal assault on Obama. But my dichotomy is not Obama versus McCain. It is (i) corporate- “managed democracy” versus grassroots popular activism against Dr. King's "triple evils that are interrelated" (capitalism, racism, and imperialism) and against other and related evils (sexism, corporate-eco-cide, state terrorism and repression) as well. It is also about the timeworn battle between capitalism and democracy.
Understood in terms of these deeper dichotomies and conflicts, what people do for two minutes on the holy day of the quadrennial election spectacle is a secondary matter. My main concern is that citizens and activists find or maintain some relevant way to be and stay true to the actual historical Left's commitment to popular resistance and mobilization under either an a McCain or an Obama presidency. And while a conservative corporate-neoliberal Obama victory may be preferable to an extremist and neoconservative McCain triumph, I fear that an Obama ascendancy carries serious related risks of excessive progressive self-pacification and threatens to dangerously re-legitimize the totalitarian politics of corporate rule and Empire.
Those risks are increased by many progressive Americans’ failure to distinguish adequately between the image and reality of Obama and the broader corporate-crafted “pacified totalitarian” political order that he reflects. Also too vaguely understood by many U.S. progressives are the differences: between social movement-building and candidate-centered electoral politics; between a participatory citizenry and an expanded electorate; and between Obama’s goal of winning an election and Dr. King’s dream of a good and democratic society beyond caste, class, and empire.
As King noted in the spring of 1967, liberals have for too long “labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there.” What is really required, King knew, was “a reconstruction of the entire society...a radical redistribution of political and economic power.” That is most definitely NOT was the Obama phenomenon is all about. As Ryan Lizza notes in a recent New Yorker sketch of Obama's early political career, "Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama 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.” Obama, Lizza observers, is "an incrementalist” (Ryan Lizza, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” The New Yorker, [July 21], 2008).
That’s hardly surprising. Obama wouldn’t be within one election of the presidency if he represented authentic popular opposition to Brave New America. His corporate-managed centrism makes perfect “get things done” (a favorite Obama goal) sense, provided that we understand that the main thing he seeks to get done is to reach and retain the highest symbolic office atop the “inverted totalitarian” pyramid.
King’s calculations were very different. He turned down efforts to get him to run for the presidency and died for his determination to authentically resist American capitalist, racist, and imperial power structures – what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated.” The alternative to democratic revolution, King sensed, was an ever-deeper descent into an American variant of totalitarianism – a descent that has proceeded apace since King’s execution and for which “incrementalist” Obamaism is providing the dark cover of plausible deniability. It’s long past time to re-start the revolution before, during, and after the latest election madness, no matter who wins.