The Empire's New Clothes*
* A shortened version of this talk (below) was given at Bluestockings Bookstore (NYC), the Wooden Shoe Bookstore (Philly), Busboys and Poets (Washington DC), Barnes and Noble (Springfield, New Jersey), and Encuentro 5 (Boston) during a recent northeastern tour in promotion of my new book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010).
Good evening. I’d like to open with a quotation from the late great radical historian Howard Zinnn. “We who protest the war,” Zinn wrote in the spring of 2007, “are not politicians. We are citizens. Whatever politicians may do, let them first feel the full force of citizens who speak for what is right, not for what is winnable… Except for the rare few, our representatives are politicians, and will surrender their integrity, claiming to be ‘realistic.’ We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth. That, history suggests, is the most realistic thing a citizen can do.”
My new book The Empire’s New Clothes is highly critical of the Obama presidency from the left. This criticism is proffered with five interrelated caveats or qualifications in mind, however.
First, for all my harsh judgments, I always situate Obama’s presidential conduct within the narrow institutional and ideological framework imposed by the U.S. profits system and empire and within the context of the history of the Democratic Party and of the broader conservative electoral system and political culture of which that party comprises a key part.
Second, there are some things Obama has done that I appreciate from the left, like easing the ban on stem cell research, ending White House denial on climate change, scrapping the global gag rule on abortion counseling, changing federal student loan policy, giving the federal government new power to regulate cigarette production and marketing, and making it easier for women to sue for job discrimination.
Third, I think it has been essential for U.S. voters and citizens, especially younger ones to experience life under a Democratic presidential administration. The “corporate Democrats” are better able to deceptively pose as a progressive alternative to business class and imperial rule and the Republicans when they are out of office. They are more effectively exposed as ultimately inadequate tribunes of the ordinary working people they claim to represent when they hold power and then fail to deliver on popular hopes and dreams they've ridden and raised on the road to office. No amount of lecturing or warning from older progressives can begin to match the actual lived experience of Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emmanuel, Hillary Clinton, and Harry Reid et al.'s right-center policy and practice when it comes to learning that (in Marxist writer Doug Henwood’s words) "everything still pretty much sucks" when Democrats hold the top jobs.
Fourth, I believe that the potentially left-leaning disenchantment that can result from that experience will not be worth a hill of progressive beans unless and until popular forces develop considerably more capacity and willingness than they have recently exhibited to organize for meaningful social and political change from the bottom up. It can even be dangerous insofar as popular resentment abhors a vacuum and gets sucked into such misdirected and deeply reactionary, authoritarian and plutocratic outlets as "the Tea Party."
Fifth, my core difficulty with a lot of liberals and progressives regarding Obama isn’t that they’ve been insufficiently critical of Obama and they they’ve been too prone to project their own values and identity and experience on to how. I do have that criticism but it’s not my main one. My biggest issue is that so many of them have tended to buy into our nation’s dominant narrow definition of politics as being about little more than the big quadrennial corporate-crafted, mass-marketed, and highly personalized election dramas. Fourteen days after Obama’s election, I said the following to a liberal audience in Iowa City, Iowa, one of Obama’s favorite and key towns in late 2007 and early 2008:
“I’m guessing that many of you here tonight Caucused and/or voted for Barack Obama because of your perception that he was an antiwar candidate. I’ll mention quite a few reasons to question that description of the President-Elect tonight, but whatever you think after I do that, please understand that right here in Iowa City there is an issue-based peace and justice antiwar group that educates and acts against war and empire everyday beneath and beyond quadrennial corporate-crafted candidate-centered election extravaganzas. And I don’t think very many of you go to its meetings.”
At the end of the day, it’s not about “Obama.” It’s about the profits system, corporate rule, militarism, sexism, ecological decline, and racism and the narrow and conservative national political culture that has arisen from and amidst those combined and interrelated problems. And it’s about “how can we re-build significant new social movements and a seriously oppositional left progressive politics that could tackle these problems in a meaningful way?”
DRUGS AND BRANDS
I’m sure most of you heard White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s outburst last week against what he called “the professional left.” “I hear these people saying [Obama is] like George Bush. Those people,” Gibbs pouted, “ought to be drug tested.” In his petulant little self-pitying rant, Gibbs dismissed the so-called professional left in terms similar to those of a Sean Hannity or a Rush Limbaugh, saying that “They will [only] be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.” Of those liberals who complain – I would say observe – that Obama has caved to the right and corporate interests on healthcare, financial reform, carbeon emissions, gay marriage, the Employee Free Choice Act and much more, Gibbs said, “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.”
Well, just for the record, I’m not a big Kucinich fan. If I was the in-power Leon Trotsky, the prophet re-armed of 21st century America, I would not dismantle the entire Pentagon. I’d keep at least half the budget for promotion of radical democratic revolution at home and abroad. Those seven Columbian military bases Obama got last year would be put to work advancing land redistribution, collective ownership and workers’ control.
Still, I do share with most Americans a longstanding preference for Canadian style single payer health insurance –Improved Medicare for All. And my new book The Empire’s New Clothes records numerous key policy parallels and continuities between the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Indeed, the original title of this book was going to be “The Re-Branding” and we quite seriously considered a cover photo showing Bush and Obama’s faces eerily merged.
So yes, I’m waiting for the knock on my door and the DEA officials to give me a plastic cup and a two hour deadline to fill it under the supervision of Robert Gibbs. At the same time, I’m going to propose a different drug test. Let’s call it the "ObamaLaid" (Glen Ford''s term) Test. This test would be for all “those [supposedly left-liberal] people” who oppose criminal wiretappings, immoral and illegal wars, plutocratic bankers’ bailouts and other vile policies when they are implemented in the name of a white Republican moron from West Texas but who become strangely silent when those same policies are enacted by people working beneath the picture of an eloquent black Democrat from Chicago. As Cindy Sheehan has noted, thinking of all the liberals she could no longer interest in opposing Washington’s imperial policies, “Wars that were wrong under Bush become acceptable under Obama.” She could have made much the same point in relation to numerous Orwellian police state policies, to bankers’ bailouts, to U.S. enablement of criminal right wing coups in Latin America, and to much more that is documented at length in my new book.
It must be drugs. Just what authoritarian, democracy-disabling narcotic is it that makes you capable of hating terrible policies only if they are being carried out by one brand of politician and incapable of doing the same when the same policies – or much the same, slightly modulated – are conducted by a different brand of politician beholden to the same dominant social hierarchies and doctrines as the one you don’t like? A progressive mind is a terrible thing to waste on partisan and identity-based politics.
“Like Bush’s America,” the great radical writer and filmmaker John Pilger noted last year, “Obama’s America is run by some very dangerous people.” Thanks to the re-branding that has come with the ascendancy of an attractive, young, fresh, smiling, black (but not like Jesse) president with a technically Muslim name , this harsh reality has gotten dangerously cloaked and hidden in the minds of many. Fake-progressive ObamaLaid is a powerful drug and a great reminder that "race, as well as gender and even class are potent and seductive tools of propaganda" (Pilger) in the hands of the power elite.
THE ADMINISTRATION FEELING SORRY FOR ITSELF AMIDST RISING DESTITUTION
Back to Robert Gibbs and his war on left drugs – drugs the Magical Obama Mystery Tour distributed quite widely and for free on the campaign trail in Iowa. Gibbs’ attack on “the professional left” was, as the wonderful left-liberal writer Glenn Greenwald noted, “one of the most petulant, self-pitying outbursts from a top official in recorded memory, half derived from a Sean Hannity rant.” It was also monumentally insulting to the millions of Americans who are struggling to keep their heads above water as the other capitalist party in power, the corporate Democrats, fail to provide anything close to adequate relief to those caught on the deepening wrong side of the profits system. I’m not always the biggest fan of Bob Herbert, the liberal New York Times columnist but Herbert recently scored a memorable smack down of the White House:
“The Obama administration seems to be feeling sorry for itself,” Herbert noted. “Robert Gibbs, the president’s press secretary, is perturbed that Mr. Obama is not getting more hosannas from liberals.”
“Spare me. The country is a mess. The economy is horrendous, and millions of American families are running out of ammunition in their fight against destitution. Steadily increasing numbers of middle-class families, who never thought they’d be seeking charity, have been showing up at food pantries…..schools are hemorrhaging resources because of budget meltdowns, and teachers are losing jobs, and libraries are finding it more and more difficult to remain open, American youngsters are falling further behind their peers in other developed countries in their graduation rates from colleges and universities.”
“This would be a good time for the Obama crowd to put aside its concern about the absence of giddiness among liberals and re-examine what it might do to improve what is fast becoming a depressing state of affairs.”
Well said, Bob Herbert.
THE PROFESSIONAL NOT-SO LEFT
There’s another and equally disturbing question here. Who is the “professional left” that Gibbs claimed to loathe and which he and others in the corporate-neoliberal and militarist Obama administration periodically take shots at as part of the triangulation agenda they inherited from the Clintons? As David Sirota recently observed on Huffington Post, “The [real] fact is that much of the ‘American Left’ is organized around the Democratic Party and specifically around Obama. The professional Left,” Sirota says and I agree, “are all the major, well-funded liberal interest groups (what Jane Hamsher sometimes refers to as ‘the veal pen’) and [those groups, Sirota correctly notes] have repeatedly shown themselves to be more loyal to the Democratic Party and Obama than to their alleged policy/ideological missions….That kind of Left,” Sirota adds, “is not built like successful social movements of the past.” It “doesn’t,” Sirota adds, ‘have the structure, independence or stomach for oppositional politics…’”
Or even for telling and perceiving basic truths about the new administration. Look, for example, at the no-so left-liberal weekly magazine The Nation, whose Publisher and Editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel actually said the following last November: “Whatever one thinks of Obama’s policy on any specific issue,” Vanden Heuvel proclaimed in The Nation, “he is clearly a reform president committed to improvement of peoples’ lives and the renewal and reconstruction of America… Progressives,” Vanden Heuvel announced, “should focus less on the limits of the Obama agenda and more on the possibilities that his presidency opens up.”
Think about the statement for a moment: “whatever one thinks of Obama’s policy on any specific issue.” Wow. This was a fascinating comment more than 10 months into an administration that had already set new corporate welfare records, and administration that had approved an auto-restructuring plan that rewarded capital flight, a “new” White House that had already made clear its determination to pass a health bill that only insurance and drug companies could love, that had already revealed its determination to undermine serious global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen, that had already showed it would not pursue major green jobs public works programs even as unemployment reached new post-WWII record levels, that had showed its determination to escalate and expand the scope of imperial violence, and that it would not pursue the labor law and global trade reforms Obama had eloquently promised to working class audiences in 2007 and 2008. So please, let’s not get over-focused on “whatever” we might think of any of those and other “specific” policies and issues (or about the cumulative corporate and imperial direction and agenda suggested by those policies)!
He’s a reformer – whatever.
Talk about “the veal pen.”
There are many other examples I don’t have time to give here; some of them are recorded in this book’s postscript, which is titled “The Sorry Surrender of the So-Called Radical Left.”
For me and others on the actual radical left, it has been hard to hear such reflexive liberal defense granted to politician-president who has behaved clearly in accord with the ultimately record-setting dollar-marked approval that corporate and financial investors had granted him since he was first carefully vetted on and around K Street and Wall Street in 2002 and 2003. As one Washington lobbyist told left journalist Ken Silverstein on condition of anonymity in 2006: “big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?”
The moneyed elite could see basic things that much our so-called professional left intellectual class could or would not. Of course, big capitalists and political investors have strong material reason to be grounded in reality when it comes to who holds office and who doesn’t. The calculations are often very different for the Democratic Party-captive “professional left.”
OBAMA THE “RADICAL” SOCIALIST
Some of you are perhaps familiar with my 2008 book Barack Obama and Future of American Politics – the one I wrote in advance of the last big money big media narrow-spectrum corporate-crafted and candidate-centered quadrennial electoral extravaganza – a book that appeared on the eve of the last great electoral monument to what the radical writers Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money,” which exercises a permanent behind-the-scenes veto power over any who would foolishly seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime." This previous book, written in late 2007 and early 2008, sought to tunnel beneath and undermine the outwardly progressive illusion of the 2004-2008 Obama phenomenon. My main political ambition, fairly futile given the overwhelming hegemonic power of the election spectacle, was to nudge progressives off the delusion and projections they were being induced to engage in regarding the new Chosen One from Honolulu, Harvard Law, Chicago and the Fleet Center in Boston. My other great objective was to suggest severe problems, from a progressive perspective, involved in "vesting hopes and aspirations in candidate-centered politics" instead of the deeper long-terms task of "building a serious, institutionally grounded working-class political movement" (Adolph Reed Jr.). I cannot resist the desire to quote a passage from that earlier book:
‘By the time this volume hits the bookshelves,’ I wrote in June 2008, …’its portrayal of Obama as a relatively conservative, capitalism-/corporate-friendly, racially conciliatory, and Empire-friendly “centrist” will strike some readers as counter-intuitive. The nation’s still-potent right-wing Republican attack machine will already be regularly and unreasonably assailing Obama as a “far left” candidate, a “socialist,” a “black nationalist,” and a dangerous “anti-American” enemy of God, Country, the Family, and Apple Pie! Obama will also be subjected to no small measure of ugly racial bigotry. The racial fears and bias and toxic color prejudice that his presidential candidacy will arouse will sometimes make it seem like the Obama phenomenon represents a real and substantive challenge to racial hierarchy in the U.S.’
‘These unpleasant facts will make it more difficult than it would be otherwise to understand the Left critique of “the Obama phenomenon” that comes in the chapters that follow.’
Think about that passage more than two years later. Here we are in the summer of 2010 and what have we got with the Obama administration? We have, I demonstrate in this book, a great monument to the game of raising and killing hope, to the manipulation of populism by elitism, to the limits of the one-and -a half U.S. party system and candidate centered politics, to the art of re-branding, and to the chilling French aphorism plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose – the more things change the more they stay the same. The story is told in the chapter titles of this second Obama book I did not expect to write. The Introduction is titled “An Instant Overhaul for Tainted Brand America.” This is an actual quote from Advertising Age, a leading marketing trade journal explaining why it gave Obama the Advertiser of the Year Award in 2008. Chapter 1, titled “Business Rule as Usual,” dissects Obama’s abject service to the moneyed elite and his betrayal of ordinary working people and the poor, left to ask “Where’s My Bailout” as unemployment skyrockets amidst a fake recovery marked by the return of gargantuan so-called compensation packages for top players at leading financial firms and by a resumed spectacular upward distribution of wealth enabled by massive federal outlays to the very parasitic firms that crashed the economy in the first place and who placed key personnel in the not so new administration – the so-called too-big-to-fail firms whose power and privilege remains intact, enhanced even by the administration’s recurrent statements of fake populist outrage. Chapter 2, titled “Empire’s New Clothes: Words and Deeds in Obama’s Foreign Policy,” examines the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s role in actually increasing imperial violence in South Asia, in expanding the imperial terror war to Somalia, Yemen, and Ethiopia, in sustaining the occupation of Iraq, in aiding and abetting Israel’s criminal policies towards the Palestinians, in furthering imperial pressure on Cuba, Iran, Russia, and Latin America, in aiding and abetting a right wing coup in Honduras, disguising escalated occupation as relief in Haiti, in the advance-kill of popular hopes for a peace dividend, in passing a record setting Pentagon budget and in doing much more that would shake Dr. King to his moral core. Chapter 3, titled “Corporate-Managed Health Reform,” shows how the “new” administration betrayed and ignored its “progressive base” by stripping highly popular and necessary measures the public option, and drug-re-importation from the final measure, a bill that only the big drug and insurance companies could really love --- all this in the making of a bill and a process so complicated that many of the president’s original supporters could make no sense of it. Single payer, long supported by most Americans and by Obama himself (he said) as recently as 2003, wasn’t even on the table to be swept away; the Obama team banished it from the discussion from the start. Chapter 4, titled “The Myth of the Post-Racial Presidency and the Politics of Identity,” details Obama’s commitment to a nauseating sort of neoliberal post-Civil Rights race neutralism that insidiously deepens institutional white supremacy. This chapter also documents Obama’s continuation of the federal assault on immigrant workers, his very weak positions on gay rights and women’s rights and his exploitation of identity politics in the process of making Wall Street friendly appointments to the Supreme Court. The sixth chapter, titled “We Were Warned,” counts no less than twenty five ways in which we were in fact cautioned – mostly by Obama and his team themselves – about the center-right corporate and military direction Obama would take. Chapter 5, titled “Big Brother Lives,” tells shocking stories on how Obama has essentially sustained the terrorist anti-terrorism and police state polices of Bush beneath deceptive legalistic repackaging.
Okay, fine. Amid all of this predictable and in fact predicted left-enabled corporate-imperial re-branding I detail, we have the Republican right, partly repackaged as “the Tea Party,” absurdly, insistently calling Obama a socialist, a black nationalist, a leftist radical and sometimes even a Marxist and --- at the Glenn Beckian margins of madness – a “Marxist Lenninist” (I keep waiting from some right commentator to claim to know that Obama is a Shining Path Maoist or a Trotskyist or a Bukharinist). And while this is a common sentiment in the vast paranoid-style right wing crackpot communications empire, it is given no small degree of credence in the more centrist “mainstream” media, which continues – against all evidence – to describe Obama as a “man of the left,” as a center-left president. That media continues, quite absurdly to lecture him on the need to “steer to the center” and to retain his “pragmatic” distance from “ideology,” meaning left ideology and to scale back his supposed faith in “big government” and “deficits.” These are lectures that corporate media reserves for Democratic presidents and never gives to Republican presidents, who grow deficits and big government with their extreme ideological commitment to plutocratic tax cuts and to messianic militarism, corporate welfare and state repression. Thanks to all this reality distorting to media madness a recent reputable survey finds that 55 percent of likely U.S. voters think that President Barack Obama is a “socialist.” (If you drill down further in that survey, you find that the “likely voters” are led to define “socialist” as someone who supports Social Security, which is ironic as Obama’s deficit commission is likely to advance rollbacks in that program and to do so more effectively than Bush could have done).
Before we go to discussion, I want to finish with a passage from my new book's Afterword:
Maybe It’s Not About Running for President
But what to do? In the spring of 1967, after he went public with his principled opposition to the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King, Jr. was approached by liberal and left politicos to consider running for the U.S. presidency. King turned the activists down, saying that he preferred to think of himself "as one trying desperately to be the conscience of all the political parties, rather being a political candidate…I've just never thought of myself as a politician."i The minute he threw his hat into the American presidential ring, King knew, he would be encouraged to compromise his increasingly left message against what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated:” racism, economic inequality, and militarism.
Reflecting on his chastening confrontation with concentrated black poverty and class oppression in the "liberal" urban North and his shock at the horrors of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia,iiiKing had come to radical-democratic conclusions. "For years I have labored with the idea of refining the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there," he told journalist David Halberstam that spring. "Now I feel quite differently. I think you've got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values." The black freedom movement, King told a crowd at the university of California-Berkeley, had shifted from civil rights to human rights, moving into "a struggle for genuine equality" that "demands a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” iv By this time, King had identified the U.S. government as "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” and denounced U.S. support for U.S.-investment-friendly Third World dictatorships, all part of "the triple evils.”
As Dr. King knew, these were not exactly “winning” ideas in the American political system of his time. They were moral observations with radical implications that led well beyond the barriers of existing U.S. politics.
Again and again during the first year of his presidency, “hard left” critiques of the Obama administration have been met by a standard “left-liberal” objection. Obama, many of his so-called left apologists have told me, is doing all he can for progressive values under the existing system of business and military power and in a context where the right-wing Republicans still exercise a great degree of power. Obama is imprisoned by the system he claimed in the name of democratic “change.” Corporate and military Washington, the argument goes, leaves little room for progressive maneuver. Poor “progressive” President Obama, victim of those nasty plutocrats, the military industrial complex and those terrible Republicans!
This is an unimpressive defense on two levels. First, it misses the fact that the “deeply conservative” Obamavii isn’t actually a progressive, something he himself has indicated to those willing to look. At a certain point, one has to wonder about the intellectual and/or moral competence of those who claim to be “left” and yet continue to cling to the brand over the reality when it comes to “understanding” Obama in the world of power. The comforting, self-pacifying notion that Obama – a president who often goes farther than required to appease corporate and military masters – really wants to transform America in genuinely progressive sorts of ways is simply unsupportable in light of what can easily found and shown about his political career and world view.
Second, while it is certainly true that Washington policymakers are captive to the interlocking directorates and revolving doors of wealth, money, power, and empire, that captivity raises an obvious point suggested in the Dr. King story I just related.Even if was the progressive populist and peace champion that so many of his left and liberal supporters want to believe, Obama would still be detained and directed by the power elite and the corporate-managed fake democracy. So, maybe it isn’t about running for president and getting behind presidential candidates. Maybe it isn’t about scaling to the top of the authoritarian American system and helping that system re-brand and re-legitimize itself as a “democracy” where “anything is possible.”ix Maybe citizens and activists who are serious about democracy and progressive change should heed an all-too forgotten pearl of wisdom from The Bible: “Do not put your trust in princes.”x Or, we might add, in the United States’ narrow-spectrum big-money/big-media electoral process, subjected as it is to Laurence Shoup’s “hidden primary of the ruling class” and Edward S. Herman and Davis Peterson’s “unelected dictatorship of money.”
Maybe its really about re-building and expanding social movements and grassroots citizens’ power and creating a more responsive political culture from the bottom,up beneath and beyond the spectacular, melodramatic corporate-crafted mass-marketed narrow-spectrum and candidate-centered (and candidate-obsessed) “electoral extravaganzas" (Noam Chomsky) the power elite and its dominant media stage for us every four years. And maybe it’s about pursuing the radical, indeed revolutionary change that Dr. King called for near the tragically premature end of his life.
No small order, I know. Let's talk about it.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org)is the author of many books, including (just out) The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=243410). Street will discuss his new book and the current political situation with interested readers during a book salon at FiredogLake (FDL). Go to www.fdlbooksalon.com/ on Saturday September 4, 2010 5 to 7 pm eastern time (4 to 6 central); readers without an FDL log in ID should go online at least 15 minutes before to obtain one. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and through his new Web site (above).