'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, November 10, 2008

Obama and the Existential Crisis of American Capitalism (Part 2) 

On Friday, I analogized the challenges facing Barack Obama to the ones that confronted Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, as a number of others have done. Coincidentally, Gorbachev himself did the same in an interview with an Italian newspaper:

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has said that the Obama administration in the United States needs far-reaching perestroika reforms to overcome the financial crisis and restore balance in the world.

The term perestroika, meaning restructuring, was used by Gorbachev in the late 1980s to describe a series of reforms that abolished state planning in the Soviet Union.

In an interview with Italy's La Stampa published on Friday, Gorbachev said President-elect Barack Obama needs to fundamentally change the misguided course followed by President George W. Bush over the past eight years.

Gorbachev said that after transforming his country in the late 1980s, he had told the Americans that it was their turn to act, but that Washington, celebrating its Cold War victory, was not interested in "a new model of a society, where politics, economics and morals went hand in hand."

He said the Republicans have failed to realize that the Soviet Union no longer exists, that Europe has changed, and that new powers like China, Brazil and Mexico have emerged as important players on the world stage.

He told the paper that the world is waiting for Obama to act, and that the White House needs to restore trust in cooperation with the United States among the Russians.

"This is a man of our times, he is capable of restarting dialogue, all the more since the circumstances will allow him to get out of a dead-end situation. Barack Obama has not had a very long career, but it is hard to find faults, and he has led an election campaign winning over the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton herself. We can judge from this that this person is capable of engaging in dialogue and understanding current realities."

But, of course, Gorbachev ultimately failed, eventually requiring the emergence of Vladimir Putin to implement a more cyncial, less ambitious goal of preserving Russian sovereignty over its peoples and resources. Gorbachev sought to withdraw from Eastern Europe and thereby enter the European Union, but, as he implies, a triumphant American capitalism was disinterested in anything other than a remorseless exploitation of his country's people, resources and infrastructure.

Gorbachev appears to believe that the current economic crisis will empower Obama to steer the US, and much of the world, in a different, more humane direction. But has Gorbachev accurately assessed Obama's acumen and motivation? If so, has capital really been sufficiently weakened so as to create an opportunity that Obama can exploit? Is the American public willing to support Obama in an effort to pursue the reforms required for capitalism with a human face? Difficult questions, to be sure, but we can safely say that the accelerating rapidity of events will not permit Obama to govern in the Clinton mold, no matter how many Clintonistas he appoints.

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