Obama and the Left, Such As it Is*
* Here (below) is the original extended version of a significantly abbreviated speech I gave at a forum on "The Left and Obama" in
Remarks at "The Left and Obama" Panel
February 28, 2009
I want to thank Haymarket Books for holding this event and all of you for coming out tonight.
In a time when the nation's leading newspaper of record The New York Times can claim as it did yesterday that the corporate-neoliberal Obama administration is undertaking "a bold and even radical departure from recent history" in service to "progressive" goals, it's important for people on the left to remember what we are about. For my brand of the Left, it's not about Wall Street-funded politicians and officeholders and their quadrennial corporate-managed candidate-centered electoral extravaganzas. It's not about the political class's shifting, self-interested policy palliatives and their carefully crafted, mass-marketed imagery and deceptions. It's not about balancing majority progressive desires and popular needs with the structurally super-empowered desires of the wealthy Few. It's not about restoring legitimacy to and faith in the profits system and the military. It's not about smooth-talking pseudo-saviors who are going to fix our messes for us from on high. It's not about manipulating the electorate and managing popular expectations and calibrating hope from the top down.
It's about building, re-building, and expanding citizen and working-class power from the bottom up. It's about trying to create a responsive, democratic, egalitarian and issue-based political culture and politics between and across the narrow-spectrum , corporate-crafted, candidate-centered election spectacles so many of us have been trained to see as the sum total of "politics". It's about meaningfully confronting what Barack Obama's supposed hero Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, called "the triple evils that are interrelated: (1) economic exploitation (really capitalism); (2) racism (deeply understood); and (3) militarism or imperialism. (I would add some other interrelated evils, including sexism and ecological ruin, to Dr. King's list). It's about advancing what Dr. King called "the real issue to be faced" beyond "superficial" questions: "the radical reconstruction of society itself." Believe it nor not, it us about the struggle for "a socialist society in which human needs are not sacrificed for the needs of the rich" (Lance Selfa, The Democrats: A Critical History [Chicago: Haymarket, 2008], p. 197). As part of the process towards bringing such real and progressive change into being, Haymarket Books author Lance Selfa notes, we have to "recognize the Democratic Party as one of the chief pillars of the system that perpetuates exploitation and oppression." (Selfa 2008, p. 198)
Barack Obama, my thesis holds, is no special and magical exception to this basic longstanding fact of American political life. He and the broader Obama phenomenon (which dates in the outward political culture from his instantly famous Keynote Address to the Democratic Convention in the late July of 2004) is distinctive however in the astonishing extent to which he, his marketers and the corporate media have been able to convince left-leaning liberals and progressives and many ordinary people that he is on their side and that his special centrist, supposedly non- or post-ideological brand of so-called progressivism is the most that could ever be attained on the road to a better society and politics.
Selling that conviction is no small part of why Obama was hired by the American ruling class and given the job of president. It's not for nothing that Goldman Sachs gave Obama $900,000 a small part of the astonishing $37.5 million Obama got from the finance, insurance and real estate industries during the last election cycle. It's not for nothing that Obama got three fourths of his campaign cash from people giving more than $200 - the same big donor percentage as George W. Bush in 2004. It's not for nothing that Obama set new records in corporate election funding and achieved a level of fawning corporate media love that is almost beyond belief.
What much of the American state-capitalist elite wanted is somebody who can give the American corporate system and empire a much-needed public relations makeover, a re-branding as they put it. Obama is the Empire's New Clothes. The masters wanted their rotten old profits system repackaged as something truly new and different in the wake of the long national and global Bush-Cheney nightmare. As they say in elite advertising journals and editorial pages, "Brand Obama" is the new and improved, outwardly progressive, democratic, and human face for that damaged product line called "Brand USA. The Bush and Cheney "reign of error" did profound damage to popular perceptions of American capitalism, power and empire at home and abroad. The political class needed someone who could give the system a vivid new slate-cleaning aura of novelty and freshness while leaving core dominant institutions and ideologies intact.
And that was a job for which none of the other Democratic presidential candidates were qualified to the same extent as Obama. He was blessed not just with intelligence and charisma and a Harvard Law degree but with the unmatchable benefits of not being white, of having a Muslim name, of having once technically opposed (on practical, not principled grounds) the invasion of Iraq, and of having worked some years as a community organizer. Thanks to his interesting history and to his national novelty, Obama naturally struck numerous corporate and military insiders as precisely the sort of person who could brilliantly advance the business and imperial agenda while containing and pacifying an angry and increasingly desperate and impoverished populace. After vetting him very carefully starting in late 2003 and determining that he was in fact a deeply conservative, privilege-friendly and vacuously neoliberal politician, much of the power elite got it. "Who better," they decided... "Who better than Obama to be the public face for the long-predicted massive taxpayer bailout of parasitic high finance? Who better than Obama to provide cover for the reconfiguration of U.S. military control of strategically hyper-significant Middle Eastern oil resources in the wake of Bush's Iraq fiasco? Who better to safely channel popular angers and to attach alienated segments of the citizenry to the corporate and imperial state and to refashion America's image around the world?"
The elite is getting what it paid for. Sean Hannity's maniacal ravings aside, Obama has been anything but a "starry-eyed [left wing] idealist" since he won the election. I don't have time here to go into a detailed account of his presidential record to date. If you want such an account from a critical Left perspective, and I hope you do, please have a look at the ZNet piece I published yesterday under the title "Obama's Violin: Calibrating HOPE since the Election." The first part of the title comes former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf's early post-election observation that Obama was following what Rothkopf called "the violin model: you hold power," Rothkopf said, "with the left hand and you play the music with the right." You campaign and gain office with populace-pleasing progressive-sounding rhetoric but you make policy in standard service to existing dominant corporate and military institutions.
Obama's violin performance is being expertly marketed by dominant media. We are told by the Times that Obama is making "a radical departure from the past" even as he proposes to increase the so-called defense budget, even as he makes it clear that he will be leaving 50,000 so-called "residual" troops in Iraq well past August of 2010, even as he increases the level of violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even as he cannot pay elementary honest attention to the legitimate grievances and claims of the Palestinian people.
Obama is a "radically progressive departure from the past," we are told form on high even as he says he will cut the federal deficit in half but cannot bring himself to embrace the elementary bank nationalizations that are obviously required in the current economic crisis. Even as he refuses to advance the obvious cost-cutting social democratic health care solution: single payer national health insurance. Even he can only set up a middle class task force but not a poverty and inequality task force. Even as he promises to spend untold billions and trillions on further bankers' bailouts executed with zero citizen oversight and direction.
Obama is a radical progressive break, we are told, even as he does not utter one word about the overdue labor law reform he campaigned on, the Employee Free Choice Act. Even as he fails to advance such basic elementarily progressive measures as a moratorium on foreclosures, a capping of credit card interest rates and finance charges, and the rollback of capital income tax rates to 1981 levels, Even as his tepid and inadequate stimulus plan is over-loaded with business-friendly tax cuts and woefully short on labor-intensive projects that will put people to work right away. And even as he asks for twice the amount of money to sustain the criminal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as he proposes to set aside per year as part of a reserve fund that might pay for just more than half the amount required to give the uninsured health coverage... in 10 years. [Even as he pays a presidential visit to Caterpillar, the company that sells occupation and apartheid bulldozers to Israel and the first major U.S. manufacturer in decades to break a major strike with scabs.]
[Now, its one thing for The New York Times, a leading part of the corporate establishment, to play along with Obama's big violin performance. That's what we would expect. What's more bothersome for many of us on the left it to see so many parts of the so-called progressive community chime in with their own little fiddles and kazoos - to hear the Executive Director of Moveon.org respond to the Iraq plans by saying people trust the president's campaign promises, to hear the AFL-CIO and Change to Win staying remarkably mute in their public comments on EFCA and to seem them accepting corporate health care reform over the single payer system that most Americans would support. Its deeply troubling to see The Nation (the weekly journal of the official U.S. "left") absurdly call Obama's budget proposal "an audacious plan to transform America" in progressive ways. Right after the election The Nation said that I "Obama Needs a Protest Movement" (The Nation, November 13, 2008) not that the people and democracy need one. This was an excellent expression of so-called left liberalism's deeply ingrained habit of subordinating movement concerns to the needs of the Democrats' leading politicians.] 
[Its' vexing to see the NAACP and the Urban League too enamored with the simple fact that "black but not like Jesse" Obama is African American to press him to undertake real initiatives against the deep and pervasive institutional racism that lives on even as the nation celebrates its willingness to vote for a certain kind of black candidate. Its annoying to see Ms. Magazine produce a cover saying that Obama is "what a feminist looks like" even as Michelle Obama is relegated to the role of domestic helpmate and as Obama continues to praise a vicious welfare elimination that especially targeted poor women and children of color. And on a more personal note it's sad to see so many progressive people I've known for many years - including some good friends - turn a willfully blind eye to anything and everything critical of Obama and even to childishly fantasize that the new president is one of them. I can't tell you all here how many liberal friends and associates I've had tell me how Obama "gets" this or "gets" that. "You know," they say, "he really gets the Israel-Palestine issue." He "gets the progressive left-labor agenda?" They look hurt when you say, "if you are right, doesn't that just make it worse? And doesn't his knowledge of left positions, as far as it goes, just make him more effective in trying to screw us over? Oh yeah, he 'gets' us alright!"]
All of us on the progressive Left need to take a certain reasonable degree of responsibility for Obama's behavior to date. Real progressive change is our challenge, not Obama's. The esteemed radical historian Howard Zinn reminded us of a basic point in an essay titled "Election Madness" last March:
"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 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."
"None of this should surprise us. 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."
[You don't have to be a flaming anti-capitalist leveler like me or many of us here this evening to think that what passes for a left today in the U.S. is being far too respectful towards the new regime. As John Judis (no "far leftist," as Obama's radical critics are commonly described by his "progressive" supporters) recently argued in the liberal-centrist journal The New Republic (in an essay titled "End the Honeymoon"), a major reason that Obama has gone forward with a conservative and inadequate economic plan "is that there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go. Sure, there are leftwing intellectuals like Paul Krugman who are beating the drums for nationalizing the banks and for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus. But I am not referring to intellectuals, but to movements that stir up trouble among voters and get people really angry. Instead, what exists of a popular left is either incapable of action or in Obama's pocket." By Judis' analysis, the U.S. labor movement and groups like "Moveon.Org" are repeating the same "mistake that political groups often make: subordinating their concern about issues to their support for the party and its leading politician." (J. Judis, "End the Honeymoon," The New Republic, February 13, 2009)]
But enough critique. There is inspiration to be found in interesting developments suggesting real movement toward progressive change beneath and beyond the false "Hope" propagated for self-interested purposes by politicians: a daring and largely successful workplace occupation (to secure severance benefits and wages from an absconding employer)on Chicago's North Side (at the Republic Window and Door plant on Goose Island) last December, rising popular resistance to rampant foreclosures and evictions; student occupations at the New School and New York University, plans for antiwar marches that will call Obama out on his rehashed imperialism, including his deadly escalation of the United States' criminal wars on Afghanistan (and, more fatefully perhaps, Pakistan). There is rising anger (feared as "dangerous populist excess" in the White House and the media) about the ongoing bailouts of the very financial institutions that drove the U.S. and global economy over the cliff.
Obama can surf the people but the inverse is true as well. Progressive activists and citizens can escape the clutches of Obamanist "repressive de-sublimation." They can evade the containment and exploitation of their hope and anger to re-legitimize dominant oppression structures. They can ride and steer the Obama wave into places (both within and beyond or beneath electoral politics) closer to true progressive ideals.
Left progressives might productively think of "the Obama phenomenon" as a sort of (watered down and strictly electoralist) bourgeois revolution: it will fail to deliver on democratic promises made to a populace it had to rally to defeat the old regime. Now that populace is supposed to return quietly (and hopefully) to remote and divided private realms, doing their little jobs and buying stuff and watching their Telescreens while the new system-maintaining coordinators do their serious work.
There is left-progressive potential in Obama's false promises and in his ongoing and impending failures. The energy and hopes he rode and channeled will need more genuinely democratic, liberating, and anti-authoritarian outlets than an Obama (or a Hillary Clinton or a John Edwards) presidency could ever have been expected to provide. As the brilliant Marxist David Harvey has recently noted, the new administration's economic plan is doomed to failure thanks to the conservative constraints of U.S. political culture and to "deep tectonic shifts in the spatio-temporal disposition of capitalist development"
Spatio-temporal tectonics aside, it's up to citizens and activists, not politicians, to carry through on progressive promises Obama is unable and/or willing to fulfill and then to move forward (as we must) to what Dr, Martin Luther King Jr. called (in a posthumously published essay titled "A Testament of Hope") the "real issue to be faced" beyond "superficial" questions: "the radical reconstruction of society itself." As Obama himself noted (along with John Edwards) repeatedly noted during the campaign, in a comment that has not fallen from his lips since he reached the White House, "change doesn't happen from the top down. Change happens from the bottom up."
Among the many reasons we don't hear that very much any more from Obama or other top Democratic politicians, one deserves special mention amidst the current remarkable capitalist breakdown. People engaging in change from the bottom up are often wont to imagine and act on their often previously hidden desires g for "a world turned upside down" - for a life beyond the pre-historic oppression structures any new head-of-state is bound to support. Long live the permanent revolution.
Paul Street (email@example.com) is the author of many essays, reviews, speeches, and book, including Empire and Inequality: American and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (www.paradigmpublishers.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=186987). Street will speak on "Change and Continuity: An Assessment of Obama's Early Administration" on Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 7pm, Paul Engle Center, 1600 4th Av SE Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
 Please see (published after this speech was delivered), Harpers' Magazine president John MacArthur's excellent Op Ed, "Obama is Far From a Radical Reformer," The Providence Journal (March 19, 2009). MacArthur notes that the official U.S. "left" ahs joined the right in creating the false impression that "a crypto-socialist has taken up residence in the White House...Such a reading of Obama is absurd," MacArthur notes, adding that "left and right persist in the fantasy that the president is a Mr. Smith goes to Washington character prepared to ‘take on' the powers that be...The left pretends that [top corporate neoliberal economist and former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence] Summers isn't really Obama's chief economic adviser, while the right pretends that the former Treasury Secretary has converted to left-wing Gaullism. In reality, Summers and [current Treasury Secretary Timothy] Geithner are in place precisely to prevent real reform of a banking system that helped put Obama in the White House...Obama, a moderate with far too much respect for the globalized financial class, is surely the unleft, unradical president. Which makes you wonder why left and right find common cause in saying otherwise." MacArthur's editorial can be read online at www.commondreams.org/view/2009/03/18-6