Critical Reflections on “the Left’s" Liberal “Leadership” and the Empire’s New Clothes
Notes From the Left Forum's Opening Plenary
“New ideas and new leadership,” Bob Herbert wrote in his last column for the New York Times two weeks ago, “have seldom been more urgently needed.” Herbert was referring to the United States’ elite political class – the people who walk and supervise the nation’s corridors of political power. Before making his pronouncement, Herbert outlined the growing crisis of American life in which the reigning authorities seem unwilling to remotely address the pressing needs of tens of millions of economically marginalized and destitute citizens even as they hand over ever more sections of the public wealth to the rich and powerful few, who have – as Herbert noted two months ago – “all but completely commandeered” the nation’s “levers of real power,” creating a society in which “It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want” since “the wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.” As Herbert noted in his goodbye column, “Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.”1
With the same crises, the ever-deepening collapse of livable ecology, and the unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan in the back of my mind, I had the same the thought about American “left” leadership and ideas as I attended the opening plenary session of the Left Forum in New York City three Fridays ago: time for big changes in thinking and personnel at the “leadership” level. It was a star-studded panel of the establishment, east-coast liberal left, featuring the flamboyant and clownish Princeton theology professor Cornel West, the prolific progressive author Barbara Ehrenreich (author of the best-selling expose of American working poverty Nickled and Dimed), the noted New York activist, professor and author Frances Fox Piven, and telegenic, left-liberal Laura Flanders of “GRITTV,” a frequent guest on MSNBC and other corporate media. Also on the panel was British media personality Paul Mason, the popular Economics Editor of BBC’s Newsnight.
“Put Down Your Protest Signs and Pick Up Your Democratic Party Clipboards”
Sadly, however, nobody on the panel other than Mason – from England – had much to offer on where America and “the left” stand and what the left’s current tasks are in the present historical moment. Flanders used her time on the stage to tell nice stories about the public worker rebellion against the right wing anti-union governor Scott Walker in Madison, Wisconsin, and to regale the audience with tales of her role in broadcasting events from there. Insisting on discussing the Madison story in the past tense and as if it was already understood to be a great labor victory, she said nothing about the limits of the Wisconsin struggle. She stayed mum on the conflict between (a) rank and file activists pushing to keep the independent working class movement alive with opposition to worker concessions and with militant tactics like a general strike and (b) labor bureaucrats and other elite, coordinator class liberals who have folded the Wisconsin struggle into an effort to put the corporate-captive Democrats (the other state-capitalist austerity party) back into nominal power in Wisconsin. “Its time to put your signs and pick up a clipboard to help get the Republicans out of office,” one Democrat told the giant pro-labor crowd outside the Madison Capital Rotunda last March 12th . As Lee Sustar recently noted on Socialistworker.org:
“Talk of a general strike--frequently discussed among activists during the three weeks of protests at Wisconsin's Capitol in Madison--dissipated as union leaders pressured union members to approve contracts that contain at least a 7 percent pay cut in order to keep the dues money. Labor's focus now is on recalling eight Republican Wisconsin state senators--which, however worthy a goal, is no substitute for a fight based on labor's power on the job….union leaders continue to sound the retreat, limiting the fight-back against the Republicans to the ballot box, while bowing to more "reasonable" concessions pushed by Democrats….the focus is now on the recall of eight Republican state senators, whose ouster would give the Democrats control of the state senate and slow down Walker's union-smashing, budget-cutting agenda. Thus, the final mass labor rally in Madison March 12 was a kickoff of an electoral campaign rather than struggle at the workplace.”
“It didn’t have to turn out this way. The willingness of workers in Wisconsin to take more militant action was clear throughout the conflict, and the teachers' sickout could have set the stage for similar job actions across the state….Wisconsin union leaders saw Walker's attack on dues check-off as a threat directed mainly at their own livelihoods--and they pushed workers to accept to concessions in order to protect their own interests at the expense of the rank and file.”3
Flanders’ celebratory comments showed no sense of, or interest in, the issues Sustar and numerous other, seriously left observers raise in connection with the meaning of Madison. An early enthusiast for what she thought (contrary or oblivious to the warnings of numerous officially invisible radicals and progressives – see below) would be the progressive potential of the Obama presidency, Flanders had nothing to say about the telling fact that the “liberal” White House intervened against the national Democratic Party’s initial efforts to support the Wisconsin labor protests, which administration officials saw as contrary to their happy, centrist, and neoliberal message. “When West Wing officials discovered that the Democratic National Committee had mobilized Mr. Obama’s national network to support the protests,” the New York Times reported on March 3rd, “they angrily reined in the staff at the party headquarters…Administration officials said they saw the events beyond Washington as distractions from the optimistic ‘win the future’ message that Mr. Obama introduced in his State of the Union address.”5
“You Did Too”
West used his Left Forum plenary turn to launch into a highly emotional, and hyperbolic rant on the need for leftists to exhibit “courage” and “’solidarity” against all forms of oppression and on behalf of “the wretched of the Earth.” An early supporter of Barack Obama and a high-profile member of the oxymoronically named group “Progressives for Obama”(PFO, renamed ‘Progressive America Rising” after Obama’s corporatism and militarism finally became too painfully obvious for even this group’s members), West denounced the Wall Street plutocracy that he now (quite belatedly) sees as the puppet masters behind the president and claimed that the U.S. is currently in the midst of “a radical democratic awakening.”
“But brother West,” West said, “you supported the brother. Yes, I did. You did too. I wanted to bring the age of Reagan to an end.” Who exactly did West mean when he said “you did too”? I, who begin criticizing Obama from the left in July of 2004 , was in the audience. For what it’s worth (apparently not much), a considerable number of radical and progressives voices tried to caution lefties and serious liberals off the Obama Kool Aid from 2005 through the 2008 election. Those voices included John Pilger, Adolph Reed, Jr (who penned a devastating criticism of young Obama's "vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics" in, get this, January 1996), Glen Ford (starting in 2003 actually), Bruce Dixon (2003 as well), Michael Hureaux, Margaret Kimberly, Doug Henwood (Google up his early essay "Would You Like change with That?"), Noam Chomsky, Juan Santos (Google up his “End of Racism”), Greg Guma, Marc Lamont Hill (Google up “Not My Brand of Hope” from early 2008), Pam Martens, Alexander Cockburn, John Halle, Alan Ruff, Jeffrey St. Clair, Kim Peterson, David Peterson, Chris Hedges, Lance Selfa, Joshua Frank, Jeremy Scahill, John MacArthur, David Sirota, Ken Silverstein (find his November 2006 Harper’s essay “Obama, Inc.”), and numerous others in such journals as Black Agenda Report, Z Magazine, ZNet, Dissident Voice, Harper’s, The Progressive, Truthdig., AlterNet and SocialistWorker.org. Even Paul Krugman (a John Edwards supporter in 2007 and early 2008) of the New York Times penned some devastating criticisms of Obama’s centrism during and after the Democratic presidential primary campaign of 2007 and 2008. My own voluminous Left warnings on and against the Obama phenomenon date just two days after Obama’s pivotal, career-making keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. My early 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (written mostly in late 2007) was the most ambitious and comprehensive effort before the 2008 election to rigorously demystify the Obama phenomenon – to sound progressives alarms about the Obama re-branding project – from a left perspective. Along with Lance Selfa’s study The Democrats: A Critical History (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008), Sheldon Wolin’s chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, 2008), and John R. MacArthur’s You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America (New York: Melville, House, 2008), and the essays of a number of left political writers, it can reasonably be said to have essentially predicted the Obama administration’s betrayal of the Obama campaign’s liberal and progressive base and its remarkable success in shutting.
So, no, we did not all support Obama on the left. Before making that critical mistake, I might add, professor West might have first consulted his own following 1990 observation: “Social motion and movements in America tend to be neither rooted in nor sustained by campaigns for electoral office, no matter how charismatic the leader….Despite the symbolic and cathartic electoral victories of liberal women and people of color, all remain thoroughly shackled by corporate priorities in the economy and in debt-ridden administrations. Under such conditions, the plight of the ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-house tends to get worse.” 11
Prozac and Protest
Ehrenreich, also a member of the ill-fated PFO, had little to say, despite her vast knowledge. She made witty comments about Glenn Beck and quickly introduced another PFO veteran, Frances Fox Piven, the celebrity du jour courtesy of Beck’s recent preposterous, paranoid-style attacks on her as an arch-radical, anti-American specter – an “enemy of the Constitution” who wants to “collapse the economy” and “destroy America.” A self-professed Democrat who endorsed the Obama presidency (she wonders why Beck “picked me… [when] there…are so many other potential targets, people who are further to the left than me, more inflammatory than me, or more important to movements than I am”), Dr. Piven came on stage to call for a Web-broadcast April 5th teach-in (no doubt useful) in which she and professor West would tell us about the hostile corporate takeover of American democracy.
Ehrenreich also mocked Americans for their pre-Wisconsin passivity. When draconian tuition hikes are imposed in Europe, she said, students hit the streets. When they are introduced in the U.S., she added, students go to campus health services and order more anti-depressants. I guess she wasn’t impressed when, in the late summer and fall of 2009, many thousands of students, faculty, and workers rallied throughout California in opposition to budget cuts, a 32 percent tuition hike, and faculty layoffs. Or by the national Day of National Action to Defend Public Education that progressive California students declared the following April.
“The Man to Do Their Work”
Mass passivity and popular de-mobilization is a real problem in the U.S., to be sure, and the Wisconsin rebellion has hardly ended it , but there’s something a little hard to take about hearing it mocked by a member of “Progressives for Obama”! What was Obama’s promise to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire except precisely to prick, pacify, manage and channel popular anger at home and abroad in fake-progressive ways that left dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies intact and even strengthened? Its unmatched capacity for mass fake- and de-mobilization and the steering of “populist rage” into the narrow system-safe conduits of the nation’s corporate-managed one-and-a-half party system was the basic underlying secret to the Obama phenomenon’s remarkable popularity with the power elite from early on. The deeply conservative Obama was perfectly suited to stealthily wrap establishment corporate politics and the related American Empire Project in insurgent garb. Once he was properly “vetted” and found to be “reasonable” – to be someone who would not fundamentally question core underlying power structures and doctrines of class, race, and empire – Obama’s multicultural background, race, youth, charisma, and even early opposition to the planned (and ultimately disastrous) Iraq War became useful to corporate and imperial interests in the dark and polarizing wake of the “polarizing” Bush-Cheney regime. His outwardly revolutionary image and “change” persona promised: to divert, capture and safely control current and coming popular rebellions; to stealthily prick and smoothly drain the alternating boils of mass disgust and mass elation (at the impending passing of the Bush regime); to simultaneously surf, de-fang, and “manage” the citizenry’s hopes for radical structural change – perhaps even revolution. By Los Angeles writer Juan Santos’s early account, Obama was distinctively qualified for the critical task of “repressive desublimation” – an essential system-preserving job thanks to the vast popular alienation and revulsion that the proto-fascistic Bush administration and Bush era have generated and to the great popular expectations raised by the ever more imminent passing of the Bush White House. According to Santos in February 2008:
“There is nothing wrong at all in the hopes we have that Obama’s rhetoric speaks to. The problem lies in what Herbert Marcuse called ‘repressive desublimation’— a hope, a need, that has been buried and denied by an oppressive system, is allowed some room to breathe, then co-opted and redirected back into a form that ultimately reinforces the oppressive system that denied and suppressed out hopes and needs in the first place. That’s what Obama represents.”
“The Bush regime was and remains an expression of a conscious plan by the far right — to crush everything that came to life in the upheavals of the cultural revolutions of the 60s era. They meant, as they consciously expressed it, to counter the counter culture, the culture of hope, and offer a new ‘hope’ of a ‘purpose driven life’ in the context of the old traditions of oppression. …The regime of Bush the Lesser was the pinnacle of this effort; he carried the agenda as far as it could go, before it began to fracture and collapse under the weight of its own madness … Literally, in terms of time in office, and as a sweeping reactionary social agenda, the Bush regime is coming to an end. With its end, inevitably, comes a wave of hope and euphoria.”
“This is the wave Obama is riding, the ocean of energy he is trying to steer into an acceptance of the same old deal, the same old wars, the same old systemic racism, packaged as if it were something new. This wave of energy is not something he’s inspired, it’s something he’s riding and that he is uniquely qualified to channel toward his own ends — which are not our ends.” 16
That “channeling” is a key part of what we should understand as the service Obama provides to the moneyed elite when Doug Henwood says that the wealthy see him as “the man to do their work" (emphasis added). After noting that Obama is “backed by the biggest Wall Street firms,” the brilliant Left Australian author, journalist, and filmmaker John Pilger made much the same point in his usual eloquent and deeply informed fashion at the end of May 2008:
“What is Obama’s attraction to big business? Precisely the same as Robert Kennedy’s [in 1968]. By offering a ‘new,’ young and apparently progressive face of Democratic Party – with the bonus of being a member of the black elite – he can blunt and divert real opposition. That was Colin Powell’s role as Bush’s secretary of state. An Obama victory will bring intense pressure on the US antiwar and social justice movements to accept a Democratic administration for all its faults. If that happens, domestic resistance to rapacious America will fall silent.”18
As Aurora Levins Morales noted in a Z Magazine reflection written for left progressives and titled “Thinking Outside the (Ballot) Box” in April of 2008:
“We’re far more potent as organizers and catalysts than as voters. Our ability to create a world we can thrive on does not depend on who wins this election, it depends on our ability to dismantle profit-based societies in which greed trumps ethics. This election is about finding a CEO capable of holding domestic constituencies in check as they are furthered disenfranchised and…[to] make them feel that they have a stake in the military aggressiveness that the ruling class believes is necessary. Having a black man and a white woman run helps to obscure the fact that …decline of empire is driving the political elite to the right. Both [Obama and Hillary Clinton] represent very reactionary politics…Part of the cleverness of having such candidates is the fact that they will be attacked in ways that make oppressed people feel compelled to protect them.”19
Within less than two years of Santos, Pilger, and Levins Morales’ comments, the Obama administration had become a great monument to the old French saying plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose (the more things change the more they stay the same). With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic too-big (too powerful)-to-fail financial institutions that have paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love (consistent with Rahm Emmanuel’s advice to the president: “ignore the progressives”), its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight, its epic undermining of serious global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its corporate sponsors), the “change” and “hope” (Bill Clinton’s campaign keywords in 1992) presidency of Barack Obama has brilliantly demonstrated the power of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money.”20 As Bill Greider noted in The Washington Post early in the Obama presidency, “People everywhere [have] learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t. They [have] watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it.”21At least now they got to learn the lesson now with Democrats at the helm – an essential lesson.22
The “right people” include the top military contractors and the Pentagon, of course. The “new” White House has escalated Superpower violence in South Asia, passed a record-setting “defense” (Empire) budget, rolled over George W. Bush’s not-so counter-terrorist assault on human rights (in the name of “freedom”), extended the imperial terror war to Yemen and Somalia, disguised escalated U.S. occupation of Haiti as humanitarian relief, aided and abetted a thuggish right wing coup in Honduras, expanded the Pentagon’s reach in Columbia/Latin America, and now we have Obama’s fake-humanitarian cruise-missile intervention in Libya, costing U.S. taxpayers $100 million a day in missile costs alone in the early days, much to the cost-plus profit of the owners of Raytheon – this in a nation (the U.S.) where 19 million citizens (6.3 percent of Americans) live in extreme poverty, with cash incomes of less than half of the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level – at less than roughly $11,000 for a family of four. It’s a fascinating record for the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. All worth keeping in mind as the next big quadrennial corporate-crafted narrow spectrum, big money and big media, candidate-centered presidential electoral extravaganza looms ever larger and the usual left-liberal "leadership" shrieks about the horrors of the Republican/Tea Party/Koch brother/Scott Walker/Fox News right in an effort to get us to put down our protests signs and pick up our political clipboards on behalf of the other state capitalist party.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Bob Herbert, “Losing Our Way,” New York Times, March 25, 2011.
2 Thank you to Michael Rack of the International Socialist Organization for recording and relating this March 12th comment.
3 Lee Sustar, “The Labor Movement After Wisconsin,” Socialistworker.org (March 29, 2011) athttp://socialistworker.org/
4 See Paul Street, “‘Recalls Take Center Stage’: Wisconsin, Workers, and Corporate Totalitarianism, American-Style,” ZNet (March 15, 2011) at http://www.zcommunications.
5 Jackie Calmes, “Less Drama in White House After Staff Changes,” New York Times, March 3, 2011 athttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/
6 Chris Hedges, “Liberals Are Useless,” Truthdig, December 9, 2009 at http://www.truthdig.com/
7 Glen Ford, “‘Progressives for Obama’ Change Name to Omit President,” Black Agenda Report (December 16, 2009) athttp://blackagendareport.
8 Stephen C. Webster, “As Obama Become a ‘Puppet,’ America in the Midst of ‘a Radical Democratic Awakening,” Raw Story (April 4, 2011) at http://www.rawstory.com/
9 See West’s March 18th plenary address, starting 13 minutes and 47 seconds in at http://www.youtube.com/watch?
10 Paul Street, “Keynote Reflections,” ZNet (July 29, 2004) athttp://www.zcommunications.
11 Cornel West, “The Role of Law in Progressive Politics” , in David Kairys, ed.,The Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique (New York: Basic, 1998). 712-713.
12 Eric Boehlert, “78-Year Old Threatened with Death After Glenn Beck Attack Fears Violence,” Alternet (January 25, 2011) at http://www.alternet.org/
13 Cynthia Samuels, “Piven to Beck re Death Threats,” Care2 (n.d.) at http://www.care2.com/causes/
14. See Street, “‘Recalls Take Center Stage.’”
15 Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?,” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007): “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative.”
16 Juan Santos, “Barack Obama and the End of Racism,” Dissident Voice, February 13, 2008.
17 Doug Henwood, “Would You like Change With That?: An Analysis of Obamamania,” Left Business Observer, No. 117 (March 2008), read reprint at http://www.zcommunications.
18 John Pilger, “After Bobby Kennedy (There Was Barack Obama),” Common Dreams (May 31, 2008), read atwww.commondreams.org/archive/
19 Aurora Levins Morales, “Thinking Outside the Ballot Box,” Z Magazine (April 2008).
20 For details through early 2010, see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama and the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), recently described by Louis Proyect as a “truth kit on steroids…Back in my wild and woolly Trotskyist youth,” Project explains, “we used to distribute ‘truth kits’ about popular Democratic Party liberal candidates such as Eugene McCarthy or Robert F. Kennedy. In some ways, The Empire's New Clothes can be described as a truth kit on steroids.” See Louis Proyect, “Taking Obama’s Measure: Book Review,” Swan’s Commentary (March 14, 2011) athttp://www.swans.com/library/
21 William Greider, “Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?” Washington Post, March 22, 2009.
22 As the antiwar activist, author, and essayist Stan Goff put it on Facebook last summer: "I'm glad Obama was elected. Otherwise, people would blame the war on McCain and the Republicans and continue with the delusion that elections can be our salvation. The modern nation-state was created by war, of war, and for war. That is its only real purpose, and all others are subordinate to it. You can change the executive director but he/she is still the commander in chief. That’s the job description.”